Stories of Arda Home Page
About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search

A Red Sun Rises  by Katzilla

A Red Sun Rises

Author's Note:

It seems that, hopefully, there is still some fuel left in my writing tank, and when I just recently reread our favourite trilogy, I found myself becoming interested in the Rohirric side of the battle of Éomer's éored against Ugluk's Uruk-hai on their way to Isengard. There was some great strategy at work that night! Expect some good old-fashioned action in the later chapters… I do not know yet how carried-away I might get, but I'll give you proper warning beforehand…

I dedicate this story to Thanwen, as she prefers action over fluff, just like me!

Chapter 1: Tidings from the North

"Éomer! Éomer!"

It was Éothain's voice that disturbed the peace of the Royal Stables, and it sounded urgent. They were already in a hurry to ride to Westfold and strengthen Théodred's forces at the fords of Isen for the feared assault, but to Éomer's ears it sounded as if his friend and captain had something else to tell him. The Third Marshal of Riddermark looked up from the saddlebags he had been packing for the ride, just in time to see Céorl's son coming to a halt before Firefoot's box.

"Éomer, Léod is back. He said that he needs to speak with you before he reports to Gríma and the King. Right away, he said." He cocked an eyebrow.


The young man was one of the scouts Éomer had dispatched to the north-eastern parts of the Wold, to keep an eye on things after he had pulled back their herds onto the other side of the Entwash in result to several orc attacks. He felt his hackles rise at the thought of the news his rider might have returned with now, and was well aware of the alarmed looks the members of his éored were giving him. He stepped out of the stall.

"Where is he?"

"Just outside the stables." Éothain, too, looked concerned. "Will you meet him here?"

Éomer shook his head.

"I'll come with you." He lowered his voice. "We'll speak in the fodder storage."

Éothain understood and silently agreed as he led his marshal and friend towards the exit. Wormtongue had been too well informed of their recent undertakings. It was clear to both warriors that the councillor had somehow succeeded in placing at least one snitch among their riders. They had to be careful. It was sad to see what things had come to in the Mark when Rohirrim spied on Rohirrim. Slowing his pace to let Éomer exit first, Éothain sighed. He had a bad feeling about this.

Léod still stood where he had left him, and both rider and horse looked as if they had traversed the long empty leagues from the north to Edoras without a single break. With a silent nod, Éomer signalled one of the passing stable boys to relieve the scout of his mount.

"Greetings, Léod. Éothain says you returned with urgent news from our eastern border."

"Greetings, Marshal." The young man indicated a short bow. "Aye. I have ridden all day and all night to bring you these tidings as quickly as possible. I thought you should hear them first, before I report to the King."

"Then come." He gestured the man over to the storage and walked through when Éothain opened the door after a quick glance around. There was no one around to notice them. If Léod was surprised to be asked into a food shed, he did not show it. They closed the door behind them. Éomer turned around.


Léod took a deep breath.

"I was patrolling the territory you appointed to me, Marshal, and there was nothing to report. All of the northern Mark is empty. But just before I left camp yesterday morning, I saw a single rider heading my way as if all of the Dark Lord's brood were hunting him. It turned out that it was Garulf, who had been watching our easternmost boarder… and he told me that he had spotted a group of Uruk-hai descending into the Wold. A great group!"

Éomer inhaled sharply.

"How great?"

"Garulf said they were at least two hundred strong, possibly even stronger."

Marshal and Captain exchanged an alarmed look, but the scout was not done yet.

"He also said that they were moving unlike any orc-group he had ever spotted in the field. You know yourself that usually, orcs will move stealthily and carefully and do whatever they can to avoid detection, but these did not seem to mind at all that they were leaving tracks one could detect from half a mile away. And they were running the whole time that he was following them, making for Fangorn."

"For Fangorn!" Éomer creased his brow. "I doubt they will dare to enter that forest. They probably only want to use it for cover… on their way to Isengard."

"That is very likely, my lord," Léod agreed. "And the way they were moving suggests that they are anxious to bring something to their master; some valuable prize or loot for Saruman. They were not fleeing from something, of that Garulf was sure. At least he did not notice anything that would have warranted their hurry. He wanted to follow them further and I offered him to bring you these tidings, so that he could turn around and continue his pursuit."

"You did right, Léod." Éomer stared at his captain. "We cannot allow for those orcs to reach their destination, whatever it is that made them chance this perilous course. We cannot let them run unchallenged through the Mark. Even if they are far from any village now, as soon as they enter the Westemnet, that will bring them within reach of many settlements too small to repel them…all the more as many of them will have sent their riders to the fords to strengthen Théodred's forces."

"Which is the way we are headed, as well, Éomer," Èothain said thoughtfully. "We cannot very well ignore your cousin's summons. They expect the hammer blow any day now. The Marshal is counting on us."

"I know." Éomer's expression darkened. "And yet this is a new and dangerous development that could also very well concern him… if that group turns south from their current course and attacks him from behind. It is not altogether unlikely that they are part of Saruman's battle strategy."

Éothain blinked.

"You're right. I had not thought of that. It makes sense though." He shook his head. "Now what?" He cast a side-glance at their scout, and then both men stared at their thoughtful marshal. Silence followed.

At last, Éomer straightened and took a deep breath.

"I will bring it before the King. He needs to hear this."

Éothain lifted a sceptical brow.

"I think I can well imagine what he will say… if he says anything at all and it won't be only the Worm talking."

"Aye, I can imagine it as well." Éomer's gaze went towards the door, behind which he knew the Hall of Kings to be. "And yet I must try. We all swore an oath to protect our people. As much as I love my cousin, there are already many valiant warriors at the fords to support him. The people of Westemnet have no one to help them should those orcs raid their settlements. Théodred would understand." He inhaled, and then gave his scout a court nod.

"Come, Léod. We will see Théoden King together. Perhaps it will make him and his councillor see the urgency of that decision. Éothain, see to it that the rest of our éored is ready to ride in an hour. We cannot challenge a horde of over two hundred Uruks with only eighty men."

His captain's gaze was still doubtful.

"What if the King or the Worm forbid it? They will not be delighted to hear that you plan to take your full éored into battle. That leaves only Céorl's riders for their defence."

For a moment, the two friends stared at each other.

"We will cross that bridge when we come to it," Éomer replied at last. "Just make sure that the men are ready when I return... and tell Céorl to meet me at the stables in an hour."


The two men quickly ascended the stairs to the hall. Back in the old days before Théoden's illness, its splendour had always been a source of comfort and pride to Éomer, but now he could not help feeling tense as he approached the guarded doors. There was no doubt that the coming confrontation had the potential to turn very ugly, especially if the king had gone to rest as he had announced only an hour ago when Éomer had seen him last. If he had to deal with Gríma only…

Éomer squared his shoulders, determined to maintain his composure, no matter what happend. His obviously very nervous scout was following in his footsteps as he headed for the Captain of the Royal Guard.

"I will do the talking, Léod, unless Théoden King or Gríma question you directly," he muttered under his breath, and the young man nodded eagerly.

Before them, Háma expected them at the doors with a questioning expression upon his weathered face.

"Marshal? I thought you were already on the way to Westfold."

"There is a new and alarming development, Háma. I know that the King wanted to lie down, but I'm afraid that I need to speak with him right away."

The Captain of the Royal Guard cast a questioning glance at the scout behind Théoden's nephew, and creased his brow.

"That is very unfortunate, Éomer. I have specific orders not to let anyone disturb the King's rest. He is feeling quite unwell today. Can it not wait for another couple of hours?"

"Alas, Háma, it cannot." Éomer shook his head. "We have received news of an unexpected and potentially dangerous situation in Eastemnet, and time is of the essence if we want to retain our chance of acting against it. Lives could be at stake. Many lives." His tone left no doubt that he meant what he said.

The older man took a deep breath, and it seemed to Éomund's son as if he, too, dreaded to see Gríma about the interruption of the King's sleep. Inwardly, Éomer shook his head. Béma, something was indeed very wrong in the Mark when steadfast, upright men like Háma feared to bring urgent business before their ruler!

"Háma, please! I would not be here if it were not important."

"All right, all right…" With a heavy sigh, the Captain of the Royal Guard turned around. "I will ask Councillor Gríma to allow you in. But I need for you to wait out here, I am sorry. These are my orders."

Éomer nodded.

"I understand… and I thank you, Háma."

He watched on until the heavy wooden doors had closed behind the older man, and then turned around to let his eyes glide over the terrace before the hall. The other two guards regarded them with a mixture of curiosity and dread in their eyes, possibly asking themselves when the bad tidings would ever end for the Mark. Most of these days, Éomer was wondering about that himself. The late winter sky above their heads was leaden grey and looked as if it might dump a load of snow or rain upon them any moment, and the icy gusts that tore at them at this elevated position only added to the Marshal's apprehension. It would be a taxing ride, no matter where they ended up riding to.

Léod's mien indicated that he was thinking the same, and Èomer could only thank the young rider that he had hastened through the night to bring them the news of Garulf's alarming observation. Right now, the scout looked ready to fall asleep where he stood. He cleared his throat.

"When we're done here, Léod, you will go directly to the guest quarters. You will not ride with us."

The young man's eyes widened and he opened his mouth in protest.

"But, Marshal-"

Éomer shook his head, and his voice became resolute.

"I appreciate your sense of duty, Rider, but you're looking utterly exhausted. I am also quite sure that your horse cannot run any further for now. Even if I gave you a fresh one, you would only slow us down. We will have to make haste if we want to intercept those orcs, and give battle as soon as we find them. Your reactions and thinking will be much slower in this state, and I will not be responsible for your death. You will remain in Edoras until tomorrow to recover and then resume your watch in Eastemnet. Is that understood?"

"Aye, Marshal." Léod lowered his head. "It is only…I want to help."

Éomer laid a hand on his shoulder.

"You already did, Léod. We would not be standing here if it weren't for you." He felt movement behind him and turned around in time to see the door open. The expression on Háma's face was unreadable as he bade them to enter.

"Théoden King will be with you in a moment," the Captain of the Royal Guard told them in a muffled tone as they walked through the twilight towards the deserted dais, the only sound the echoes of their heavy steps. Upon reaching the hearth, Éomer braced himself for the coming confrontation. It seemed certain to him that it would get ugly. Gríma would see to it with his mean-spirited and personal accusations.

"Please, Marshal, wait here." Háma gestured toward the empty tables and benches. "I will get you as soon as the King gives me the order to lead you before him." He disappeared into the shadows.

With a brief, impatient twitch of his eyebrows, Éomer sat down. Léod followed his example, his gaze wandering through the oppressive twilight. From the way the young man inspected their surroundings, Éomer concluded that he had not been inside Meduseld often. Not that it could be called a welcoming place these days. Aside from the darkness, which not even the hearth fire could sufficiently penetrate, the air seemed stuffy and smelled of ash and sickness. For a moment, Éomer considered calling the door wards to ask them to ventilate the big room a little better, but just as he narrowed his eyes to penetrate the deep shadows for a sign of them, he heard a door clap from the direction of Théoden's rooms, followed by slow scuffling and muttered, unintelligible whispering. He tensed, feeling a sudden pang of guilt as he beheld the three shapes making their way towards the dais in the flickering light of the torches. Aye, his uncle was sick… but his business was too important to delay even a minute.

Éowyn was with the king, he noticed, and she had to support their uncle heavily as he tried to negotiate the few steps. With a deep groan, Théoden King lowered himself onto the throne, and his councillor, who had slowly followed them, gestured Háma closer to whisper something into the man's ear.

With a sense of foreboding, Éomer slowly rose to his feet, followed by his scout. And really, the Captain of the Royal Guard waved for them to approach.

"What is it that could not wait, Son of Éomund?" Gríma began in a cutting voice, even before they had reached the dais. "What was so urgent that you had to deny a sick man his rest? Should you not rather already be on the way to Westfold, I wonder, to follow the Second Marshal's summons?"

"Councillor Gríma…" Éomer inclined his head and then shifted his direction to his uncle. "I apologize for having to disturb your rest, Sire, but I assure you that unfortunately, there was no other option available to me. There are new and alarming developments at our northeastern boarder, and we need to rethink our actions quickly," He waited for a reaction, yet the old man seemed to look right through him. "Sire… We were just about to depart for the Fords of Isen when Léod, one of my scouts I ordered to keep an eye on the Eastemnet, returned from his ward in great haste and with potentially dangerous tidings." He introduced the young man with a glance and a nod, and Wormtongue's pale grey eyes shifted towards the youth.

"You are said scout?"

"Aye, Lord Gríma."

"And what tidings do you bring?"

"My Lord…" Léod fought to manoeuvre his voice through his tightening throat under the councillor's cold scrutiniy. "A great group of orcs, over two hundred strong, invaded the Eastemnet yesterday. They descended from the East Wall and are on the way to Fangorn, if they did not alter their course yet. It seemed they were in great haste."

"There are no settlements in their way in the north," Wormtongue replied, his attention back on Éomer. "Are there, Marshal?"

"No, my lord. But-"

"And you withdrew our herdsmen and horses from there, behind the Entwash. Isn't that correct?"

Éomer nodded.

"That is correct, my lord. And yet-"

"So what damage could they possibly inflict upon that empty land, Marshal?" Gríma interrupted him again. "It seems to me that the worst they can do up there is trample the grass. What makes them more important than a summons of your cousin, who calls for your aid in battle? The sword strike will fall at the fords any day now."

Éomer narrowed his eyes, feeling his blood pressure rise.

"I am painfully aware of that, Counsellor. And I would that I could leave for Westfold at once, but I cannot ignore my scout's tidings." As expected, Gríma intended to make this even more difficult for him. That he understood what threat a group of over two hundred orcs posed to the Mark, was out of the question for Éomer. "As Léod stated, the group was making for Fangorn when they were last seen. My guess is that their final destination is Isengard, to either bring Saruman loot or important tidings. And yet-"

"Isn't that pure speculation on your part, Marshal?" Wormtongue interrupted, but Éomer ignored it.

"And yet we have no guarantee that they will stay on this course. They could easily turn south before the Isen and raid all those settlements who sent their warriors to Théodred's aid. There would be no one left in those villages to stop them. And when they are done, they could come from behind and attack the Second Marshal's forces from a direction he didn't foresee, thereby placing his troops between the hammer and the anvil. Yet even if this is only a test of our watchfulness, we cannot afford to ignore it, or next time, they will send an army that way." He shifted his attention back to his uncle. "Sire, please, we cannot allow this to happen! I implore you!"

There was still no reaction, but at least it seemed to Éomer that Théoden King's gaze was less empty. He exchanged a quick, worried look with Éowyn, who stood silently behind the throne, pale like snow. Her expression was composed, but in her eyes, he could read the same dread that he now felt. When he turned his attention back to the Worm, the expression he had expected was there: a nasty, calculation smirk around Gríma's thin lips.

"You are desperate to hunt those orcs, aren't you, son of Éomund?"

Éomer squared his shoulders. He knew too well the direction this was going.

"Aye, Councillor…I am desperate.… because the lives of our people are at stake. I swore an oath to protect them."

"Oh, your oath… I forgot." The smirk became even more pronounced, but the expression in Wormtongue's eyes remained cold. It was the gaze of a hawk focussing on its prey. "This is about your honour. You seek to hunt those orcs to further your own glory while your cousin is away in the West. You think people will call you a hero when they hear that you slew their enemies, even though they were too far away to even be a threat to them… or is it merely bloodlust that's driving you?"

"Councillor Gríma…" Éomer fought against his bucking temper. "This is not helpful."

"It is the truth, though, isn't it?"Wormtongue bowed down to the King. "Alas, my lord, it is as I feared. We all know how much your nephew hates the orcs. They killed his father, and now they must pay… even if it means that your son will wait in vain for reinforcements."

"I forbid it!" the old man croaked, and his milky eyes tried to focus on his nephew. "You will ride to the fords, Marshal, as decided earlier. All our strength is needed there."

Éomer shook his head and took another step towards the dais, ignoring Éowyn's warning head-shaking.

"My Lord…"

"Do you object to your King's will?" Wormtongue said sharply, and his eyebrows shot up. His pale eyes pierced the younger man. "Do you, Marshal? You know what such bearing is called?"

They stared at each other, and in the ensuing silence, an idea formed in Éomer's mind. A dangerous idea, no doubt, but it seemed the only option available to him. His tone was quiet, but dripping with intensity when he answered.

"Are you calling me a traitor, Councillor? And are you insinuating, as you did before, that I do not care for my cousin's fate? Or worse, that I want him to be killed, in order to claim the throne for myself?"

Gríma did not shrink from his stare.

"I did no such thing, Marshal," he replied, eerily calm. "Yet I cannot help wonder what your true motivation might be."

"I thought I stated it loud and clear, Lord Gríma. My motivation is to protect our people."

His adversary shrugged, and looked down at his slumping ruler.

"Well, you heard the King, Marshal. You will protect our people at the fords. Pursue those orcs on your own account, and there will be consequences. I can only warn you."

For another short eternity, councillor and marshal regarded each other, unspoken threats passing between them. At last, Éomer nodded and, with a brief glance at his sister and the silent king, turned to go.

"Very well. Sire…Lord Gríma… Léod…" With great steps, he made for the doors, followed by his dismayed scout.

"I mean it, Marshal!" Gríma shouted after him.

The door ward before them hastened to let them out, and an icy gust greeted them as they emerged from the twilight. The dark grey sky still loomed as foreboding as it had when Háma had admitted them into the hall, and yet it looked immeasurably more welcoming to Éomund's son. The fresh air cleared his head as they made for the stairs.

It was not until they had halfway descended to the stables that Léod dared to ask.

"What will we do now, Marshal?"

His eyes on the stables, where Éomer could see Éothain expectantly looking their way, he involuntarily straightened… and, with a deep breath, replied: "We will make for Fangorn."


Author's Note:

Thanks to everyone who commented on the first chapter. I hope you will enjoy the second one just as much and perhaps, find a moment to comment on it. While I was writing this, I actually realised that, although I am –for once – actually moving within canon, this would work just as well as a prequel for my epic "Untold Tales of the Mark: The Banishment of Éomer". So don't be too surprised should you recognize some of the used personnel in the coming chapters…

Chapter 2: The Hunt


Darkness had already fallen when Éomer signalled his riders to slow down. For more than eight hours they had ridden straight north at a speed none but the horses of the Mark could have held, but now it was time to grant their mounts – and themselves – some much-needed rest for the night. As the moon was not yet up, it was getting too dark to continue, anyway.

Firefoot, usually a wilful beast that reacted rather cantankerous to any limitation of his considerable power, followed his rider's invitation to come to a halt thankfully. Éomer clapped his neck and thanked the big grey while he surveyed what he could see of the terrain. He knew that the gentle slopes of the northern grasslands continued from here all the way to their northern and eastern borders, which made this as good a resting place as any other.

Movement to his right caused him to turn his head. Éothain had been unusually quiet during their ride, and as he directed his gelding closer, the marshal could see the same thoughtful expression on his Captain's face that had been there the whole day.

"Halfway there," Éomer began. "We're making good progress."

Éothain nodded, but remained silent.

"We will stay here until an hour after moonrise," Éomer continued. "The horses need the rest…their riders as well. Set a perimeter and determine ten guards. These will be relieved in two hours."

"Aye, Marshal." Éothain turned to their men. "Dismount! I need ten men to report to me for first watch, and ten for second watch. The rest of you, see that you get some shut-eye. We continue an hour after moonrise."

They watched as the riders slid from their saddles, grunting and groaning after the long ride and lowly muttering among themselves as they distributed themselves in the natural depression. From the heated bodies of their sweating mounts, steam rose into the chill air, lending the atmosphere a somewhat eerie character.

Éomer waited for another moment, trying to penetrate the blackness before them. If those orcs were indeed bound for Isengard, of which he harboured no doubt, they would have to cross the Entwash at one point. If they could attack them during the fording or on the bridge, it would be an immeasurable advantage… but it all depended on whether they were fast enough. His instincts screamed at him that they could not afford this break, that orcs made the most progress during the night, and yet he also knew that there was no alternative. At the end of this ride, they would have to give battle, and for that, he needed fresh men and horses. It could not be helped. He sighed. And still Éothain remained silent by his side.

"Come, Éothain," he said, and dismounted. "Let's make the most of those few hours that we have." Quickly he freed his stallion from his saddle and allowed him to wander free after a greedily accepted reward in the form of an apple.

While Éothain ordered the guards to their positions, Éomer spread his bedroll in the grass and knelt down to dig a sparse meal of some dried meat, cheese and bread out of his saddlebags before he sat down. A moment later, his friend mimicked his actions close by. Watching him closely, Éomer chewed for a moment longer, then swallowed and began.

"You do not agree with my actions."

Éothain stiffened… and sighed.

"I do believe that we are doing the right thing… I am only afraid that you have stuck your neck out far enough this time for Gríma to cut it off. All these years, he has been waiting for an opportunity like this. You know this."

"Aye." Éomer nodded. He stared down on his hands, seeing the accursed pale face before his inner eyes like some sick moon. "And he may have very well designed that trap together with his true master. Something tells me that Saruman instructed him to ensure that those orcs reached their destination, that's why the Worm was so adamant to keep us away from them."

He grimaced and woke from his reverie to look at his friend.

"I am aware of the situation. Yet there is nothing that I could have done differently. I hope you understand that, Éothain. If it is any consolation to you, you should know that I take full responsibility for my actions. You and the men will be held blameless. You were only following your marshal's orders."

Éothain shook his head, and there was open fear in his eyes when he regarded Éomer.

"I am not worried about us. I'm worried about you. You are openly disobeying the King's orders. That is rebellion. Gríma would be well within his rights to order your execution! We need you. The Mark needs you… more than ever!... And I don't want to lose my friend."

Éomer stared back, and while he gave it his best to sound convincing, he could not deny that there was lingering doubt in his mind.

"Such a decision could only be made by the King himself. And although things between my uncle and me have been … complicated… for quite a while now, I will not believe that Théoden King would order me killed."

Éothain's eyebrows twitched while he washed down another bite with some water.

"I wish I had your confidence in the king, Éomer. I'm afraid that these days, he seems to me more and more like the Worm's puppet for the destruction of the Mark. Those orders he has been giving for the past weeks, they were the Worm's." He inhaled and shook his head, regarding his Marshal with deep worry. "Do you honestly believe that Théoden King still knows what he is saying, or which effect his orders have for the riders in the field?"

For the longest time, Éomer could only stare back, a shudder running down his spine. Everything his friend had said was the truth, of course. But what was he supposed to do? Together with his cousin and the other marshals, they had developed a system to bend the King's orders as far as possible while they were roaming the plains without explicitly acting against them. But even that system had its limits.

He inhaled.

"If I'm wrong about the King, Éothain… what will you do? How will you lead our riders? Will you follow Gríma's orders, even though you know he wants the death of our people?"

Éothain's eyes widened, and for a moment, he forgot to chew. A cold shudder ran down his spine at the thought that command of their éored could quite possibly change to him in the very near future. That there was a real threat that they would execute his friend upon their return to Edoras. Then it would be him who would have to deal with the Worm on a daily basis. It could not be.

"Béma, Éomer…" he snorted at last and shook his head, hoping in vain to drive the dismaying thought out of his skull. "Let's not talk about such things right now. They freeze my blood."

"Alright… I will stop. And yet you should begin to give this some thought, Éothain. It won't hurt to be prepared." In this bleak, cold darkness, Éomer suddenly did not feel at all convinced that his kinship with Théoden would protect him if Gríma decided to go for his head, and the councillor's words echoed in his mind. 'There will be consequences!'

For a moment, he felt abysmal dread in the back of his mind, ready to pounce. Ready to paralyze him. Which was something he could not allow. With a supreme effort, he pushed it back. He could not afford to think about the consequences of his actions now. All that mattered now was that they found those orcs and disposed of them as quickly as possible and made for the Fords to strengthen Théodred's forces. Time was running through his hands…

With another deep sigh, Éomer gathered his woollen blanket and spread it over himself.

"See that you get some sleep. Tomorrow, we are going to need all our strength and wits. We cannot afford failure."



In Meduseld, Éowyn sat lonely and despondent in her chambers, her untouched dinner before her on the table. It was late and the day had been taxing in every kind of way, but Éomund's daughter knew that her reeling head would not let her sleep in the foreseeable future, so she had not even thought yet of going to bed.

First, there was her concern for Éomer and Théodred, who were out there with their riders, bound for battle… or at least she hoped that Éomer was bound for Westfold. She had no way of knowing after his ugly confrontation with Gríma. Still, Éomer's expression shortly before he had stormed out of the hall had filled her with fear, and she knew that the Worm had recognized that spark of rebellion in her brother's eyes, as well.

It did not soothe her mind that she knew both her cousin and her brother to be formidable warriors. The assault they were expecting from Saruman's direction would be massive, their scouts feared. Risking their lives, several of their most experienced riders had prowled the enemy's territory for the last weeks, and only few of them had returned to Westfold to report their findings to their Second Marshal. Apparently, the Necromancer had breed himself a massive army for the single purpose of their destruction, and the only question that remained was when he would unleash it against them. It felt like a snare around the Mark's neck, about to be tightened and throttling them all.

And as if that was not enough to unhinge any sane woman's mind, there was the situation with their uncle. Gríma was around him often these days, but for all the potions and medication he ordered and concocted for their ruler, his efforts seemed to be to no avail. Théoden was fading before their very eyes. Sometimes, Éowyn could not help wonder whether their uncle's health was, in fact, declining in reaction to the things the Worm gave him. So far, she had not uttered anything in that direction, and yet that sceptical voice in the back of her mind rose in volume with each passing day. What if Gríma poisoned the King right underneath their eyes, in fact, and only she saw what he was doing?

With a deep sigh out of the depths of her soul, Éowyn looked down onto her dinner tray with revulsion and slid back with her chair to stand up. She could not eat now, even if there was this insistent voice in the back of her mind telling her that she would need her strength in the days to come. Yet before she had reached the window, a knock at the door interrupted her train of thought.


The door was slowly opened, and in came Maelwyn, the young mother of two whom they had taken into their household four years ago.

"My Lady…" The chambermaid inclined her head in an implied bow and made for the table. "My Lady, you did not eat anything at all? Can I get you something else, perhaps? A soup, or perhaps-"

Éowyn shook her head."

"I am not hungry, Maelwyn, thank you. Please, take the tray away. And go home, it is late. We've kept you for far too long today. I am sure your family misses you already."

The young woman smiled, but did not dare to meet her mistresses' eyes.

"I do not mind, my Lady. I like to be where I'm able to help."

"And help you did," Éowyn replied, a sudden wave of thankfulness rising within her. "Please know that I appreciate it. There is little enough warmth between people in our hall these days. But go now, I do not want to keep you from your family any longer. I will see you tomorrow. Good night, Maelwyn."

"Good night, Lady Éowyn." Balancing the tray in her hands, Maelwyn made for the door when another knock came.

'It's him. It's him. Curse him! Can't he even leave me alone for one evening?' With a tightening feeling in her chest, Éowyn turned around and beheld the subject of her dread in the doorframe.

"Councillor Gríma?" Maelwyn lifted the tray to indicate that he was barring her way, and with an absent-minded smile, the son of Gálmod stepped aside, not even deigning to address a simple servant. Glad to be able to leave, but yet worried for her mistress, the chambermaid slipped through the narrow gap. The door was instantly closed behind her.

Inwardly, Éowyn braced herself for yet another confrontation with this most unnerving of men.

"I am about to go to bed, Councillor. Whatever it is, can it not wait until tomorrow?"

The colourless eyes rested on her face, scrutinizing. Revelling in her discomfort, she was sure of it.

"It surely could, my Lady," Gríma said calmly. "At least from my perspective, as there is nothing to be done about it at this late hour anyway. And yet I have a feeling that you would like to know about it, as it concerns you closely."

Despite her resolution to remain calm, Éowyn found herself infuriated, and her voice was cutting when she replied: "It is much too late for your riddles tonight, Councillor Gríma. Either speak clearly or leave."

The merest hint of a smirk played around Wormtongue's pale lips, but it did not reach his eyes, which stayed glued to her face like those of an insect, a praying mantis perhaps, eager to read any emotion there she would be careless enough to let slip.

"As you wish, my Lady…" Gríma straightened, making no secret of the fact that he was enjoying this little scene. "One of my scouts just returned. He told me that your brother is riding north… not west."

For the longest moment, Éowyn could only stare at her adversary. Her brain refused to process the information Gríma had just given her. Was it even information? Or a blatant lie, to see her reaction? And if it was the truth… but there had been the look her brother had given her just before he had stormed off. That look… 'Éomer, what have you done?!'

"You have nothing to say to that, my Lady? Should I repeat it?"

"I heard you loud and clear, Councillor." Her thoughts were racing. 'Uncle forbade it, Éomer! He forbade it and you did it anyway! Aye, it might have been necessary, but don't you know how this can end for you?' "What do you expect to hear from me?'

Gríma shrugged.

"I don't know. I have no idea, what you would think about this, my Lady. Do you silently applaud your brother for defying your uncle? For defying me? Or are you upset? Because – I can see it in your eyes – you know the implications of this behaviour. We are not talking about a slap on the wrist for a stupid child."

Éowyn swallowed.

"You cannot seriously doubt my brother's commitment to the Mark, Councillor! He has given his blood for all of us repeatedly! In all the years in the Armed Forces, Éomer has saved thousands of lives!"

"And yet he acts against his King's explicit orders… thereby endangering the King's son, who has no way of knowing that the reinforcements he is counting, yes, even depending on, will not come. Tell me, my Lady, how should such behaviour be called? Inconsiderate? Rash?... Or calculating and rebellious?"

"Éomer loves the Prince like his own brother!" Éowyn brought out against the tightening of her throat. "If you want to insinuate-"

"And yet he endangers his life by ignoring his summons in the moment of extreme danger!" Gríma interrupted her. He narrowed his eyes and stepped closer, a snake ready to strike. "Mayhap it is true that your brother loves the Prince, my Lady, although at last, I fear, it has become only too clear that he loves the throne more! With your uncle fading, all that stands between him and the fulfilment of all his wishes is… your cousin! And after all this time, he finally sees the opportunity to dispose of him!"

"Out!" Éowyn pointed at the door, trembling with suppressed rage and only barely able to stop herself from assaulting her tormentor bodily. "Leave, Councillor! Lest I forget myself! Out! Or I call the guards!"

"I understand your denial, Lady Éowyn. Believe me, I do," Wormtongue replied cooly. He turned to go, and yet when he reached the door, onet final calculating glance back found the King's niece. "I did not tell the King yet. He is ill and needs his sleep. It will be the first thing he hears from me tomorrow morning though. What do you think, how will he react? Will he let things slide as before, now that his own son has been betrayed by his nephew?"


With an implied, mocking bow, her adversary closed the door behind himself. Acting on impulse, Éowyn stormed forward and threw herself against the wood. With trembling fingers, she turned the key, locking herself in. It felt better, at least a little bit. Nobody could disturb her now. Slowly she turned around, her back against the wood, eyes unseeing. The trembling spread over her entire body as the despair washed over her.

'Éomer!' she thought, her breath coming in silent, hard sobs. 'Brother, what have you done!'



It was still early and the mist was almost impenetrable when the éored reached the Entwash. The sun was not yet up and it would take some time before her pale face would burn itself through the thick greyness of the late winter morning. It was a bleak start into the day for the group of horsemen in the great emptiness of the Mark's Eastemnet.

Again they had ridden for over four hours at a pace that far exceeded how they usually patrolled their lands, and the effort was telling on horses and riders alike as they came to a brief halt.

From somewhere out of the grey swaths, the sound of approaching hoof beats alerted the riders, and many bows were readied with arrows fitted to the string. But it was only Anlaf, whom Éomer had sent ahead last night together with two other scouts in search of tracks. Letting his raised arm fall, Éomer signalled Éothain to join him as they rode ahead to meet the scout.

"Anlaf! You look as if you found something."

"Aye, Marshal!"

Both the man and his mount were out of breath, as if they had ridden for hours at this breakneck-speed. Éomer steered Firefoot alongside the light-grey stallion, indicating that he was listening.

"We found their tracks, my Lord. They were, in fact, hard to miss, even in this mist. Unfortunately, it appears that the orcs are already on our side of the Entwash. They must have crossed the bridge not fully two hours ago."

"Two hours ago!" Éomer exhaled in frustration. That accursed break they had taken! But it had been necessary.

Anlaf nodded.

"Aye. They've been running the whole time, still making for the Entwood. I've never seen any band of orcs move with such speed, especially since the wind betrayed our presence to them. They know we are on their tracks. We need to make haste if we want to intercept them before they reach the trees. The other two are still pursuing them." He caught his breath for a short moment, and then continued: "I fear Léod was right, it is a very great group! Well over two hundred strong, I would say. Probably closer to two hundred and fifty… and there many great orcs from Isengard among them. Uruks with the Necromancer's sign upon their armour."

"Any chance that they are just as exhausted as we are?" Éothain exchanged an alarmed glance with Éomer. Anlaf shook his head.

"It would be a miracle if they were not, but fact is, they have not yet slowed down. Something's lending them strength. I don't know what."

"Well, I've got my suspicions," Éomer snorted, and then turned Firefoot around to address his listening éored. "You heard Anlaf! We need to make haste if we want to intercept those orcs on their way to the Entwood! Under no circumstances can we allow them to reach the forest! You all know your horses well. Those of you riding horses of greater speed and stamina, follow me! We will try to get between the Entwood and the orcs! The rest follows Éothain!"

His captain nodded to himself.

"So, with Béma's help, we will surround them before they reach the Entwood. What then? Provided we even make it, we will be on our last legs. If we have to give battle then, it might end in disaster."

Éomer narrowed his eyes. There was no time now to think this through. He shook his head.

"First let's find them, Éothain. Then we will surround them, but stay outside the range of their bows. Once we've got them pinned like this, we will plan further. One step at a time." With a last glance at his Captain, Éomer turned his stallion around and kicked his heels into his sides. "Hiya, Firefoot!"

A good third of their éored followed their marshal as they accelerated along the glistening band of the Entwash…


Author's Note:

Thanks to all of you who reviewed my first chapters. Hopefull, you will enjoy this new instalment equally. Have a wonderful weekend, and may the weather allow you to read something… ;-)

Chapter 3: Games without Frontiers


Éowyn had foreseen that she would have trouble finding sleep even before Gríma had paid her his nightly surprise visit, and sure enough, when the blackness before her window turned into milky grey, the early morning light found Éomund's daughter still up to welcome it.

For a while, she had contemplated lying down anyway, even though rest had seemed an impossible hope, but the quieter it got in the Golden Hall, the more often Éomer's face had appeared before her inner eye, with that defiant sparkle in his hazel eyes… and Wormtongue's word had ricocheted through her head ceaselessly. 'We are not talking about a slap on the wrist of a stupid child!' No, it was execution he had been hinting at, of that she was sure. Execution or banishment, for there was no other punishment thinkable for traitors. Her brother… a traitor?

Yes, there had been rebellion in Éomer's eyes, but even more the overwhelming urge to do what he felt was right and help those who could not help themselves. The expression on his face as he had stood before the dais had been that of a man forced to choose between two evils. It had clearly anguished him not to be able to ride at once to the help of their beloved cousin, his most important ally in their eternal battle against annihilation.

Éowyn sighed. It was probably her brother's greatest weakness that he was not very skilled at hiding his emotions. Nor had he ever expressed an interest in that skill. Honesty was a trait that was valued highly among their people and especially among the riders, and those who kept their thoughts and feelings to themselves were usually regarded with suspicion. And yet here, within the snake-pit of the Golden Hall, with a master plotter like Gríma pitted against them, honesty and openness were hindrances, only fit to get oneself into trouble… and now trouble had found Éomer.

The question was: what could she do? How could she help him? Provided her brother returned victorious from his fight against the orcs, how could she ensure that he would not go from the stables directly to the gallows? Not that she believed that their uncle would actually use such drastic measure of punishment against his nephew… and yet these days, Éowyn found to her dismay that she felt no longer certain of anything. And as she could easily guess that the Worm would delight in telling his news to the King in the most drastic words, perhaps it would be helpful if she were there when he did it, as a calming and countering measure.

Quickly she refreshed herself and slipped into a new dress, giving her long tresses a less than thorough combing through in her haste to get to Théoden King before Gríma could do any irreparable damage. For a moment, she caught her reflection in the mirror… and saw her worry written clearly into her features. This would not do. Éowyn straightened… and regarded herself as she willed the mask upon her face, this unreadable expression behind which she could think what she want and not be caught by her adversary. It had taken her a while to master it, and she knew that it intrigued the Worm greatly, made her even more a target for his disgusting advances, but it also provided protection.

With the mask in place, the daughter of Éomund unlocked her door and quietly opened it. Noises were coming from the kitchens, where Elfgyth and her servants were already well into their preparations of the morning meal, but otherwise, the Great Hall was still asleep. Even the fire in the hearth was burning only lowly and was in need of new food in order to spread its warmth and light through the room.

Closing the door behind herself, Éowyn slipped silently over to the lowly flickering flames, stoked them with the poker and laid four thick logs into the hearth. For a moment, she waited and stared into the fire, watching as the wood was beginning to be consumed and enjoyed the warmth upon her face. The poker, too, felt nice and heavy in her hand, somehow… ready. Urging her. Yet inwardly she shook her head. She could hardly bash in Gríma's head, however strong her desire to do so… and still the question of what the consequences of such a deed would be intrigued her. If anyone actually killed the Worm… would their powerless council actually sentence his murderer? Would her uncle do so? Or would the Mark suddenly wake to see that they had been acting like the rabbit before the snake for far too long?

Abruptly, she laid the poker back. She was not about to find out… at least not today. Today, she would use a more subtle approach. Straightening, the daughter of Éomund directed her steps over to the kitchens, from where the wonderful smell of freshly baked bread emitted. She entered after a short knock and found the usual early morning bustle in place. Elfgyth, the elderly, often cranky, but very competent mistress of the kitchen, stopped dead in her track as she beheld their early visitor.

"Good morning, my lady! That is a surprise! What is it that we can do for you so early in the morning?"

Éowyn inclined her head in greeting.

"Good morning, Mistress Elfgyth. I would like to ask that you let me know when you have fixed the morning meal for the king. I would like to bring it to my uncle myself today."

"As you wish, my lady." The older woman nodded. "It will take about another half an hour. Will you be in your chambers, or-"

"I will return to fetch it myself, thank you, Mistress. There will be no need to send someone to find me."

"And how about your own breakfast, Lady Éowyn? What can we prepare for you? I assume you want to have the morning meal together with the king."

Éowyn nodded and found that, after the missed supper, she was indeed hungry.

"I will take whatever you prepare for the King, as well. Thank you, Mistress."



The sun had not yet fought her way entirely through the Entwash's mists when Éomer beheld the orc tracks for the first time himself. They were indeed hard to miss, the way a broad corridor of grass had been trampled as thoroughly as if one of their great herds had stampeded over it. He shared his scout's assessment: these orcs knew they were coming. They knew that there was no longer any use in stealth, and that speed alone could rescue them. Well, he, Éomer, son of Éomund, would personally see to it that it could not!

Squinting into the distance beyond Firefoot's ears, Éomer strained his eyes for any further signs of the enemy, but Saruman's brood was not to be seen yet. He laid a hand against the stallion's neck, feeling distinctly that the many leagues between Edoras and their current position were telling on his mount. The Grey's gait was no longer smooth, but he kept his speed up, preceding their vanguard of approximately forty riders. Sending a silent prayer to Béma to let them find the horde of orcs before they could disappear into the Entwood, Éomer settled back into the stupor of any long ride.



"My lord?... Uncle? Are you up?"

Having placed the heavy breakfast tray onto a little table near the door to the king's chambers, Éowyn strained her ears for signs of activity within and knocked.

"Uncle?" There was only silence, so she knocked again. "May I come in? I've got your breakfast…" At last, there was the noise of steps approaching the door from within. They sounded firm and energetic though, and not much like Théoden King's weak shuffle of the last days. Her heartbeat sped up, as her body identified the sound even sooner than her mind. Straightening before the door, Éowyn braced herself… and sure enough, it were Gríma's pale features which greeted her when the door was finally opened. The councillor's thin lips curved into an amused smile as he beheld their unexpected morning guest.

"Lady Éowyn! Up so early? And degrading yourself to the level of a servant by bringing us breakfast? How very attentive of you. I must admit that I am touched."

"The breakfast is for my uncle and me, dearest Councillor," Éowyn replied coolly, but unable to suppress her disdain completely. "If you haven't had any yet, may I suggest that you let Mistress Elfgyth know your choice?" Not waiting for Gríma's reply, she took her tray and carried it into the chambers.

Still in his morning robes, Théoden already sat at the large wooden table near the south-looking window, a steaming mug of tea before him. There was surprise in his eyes when he beheld his niece, but even more, Éowyn could see the deep lines of pain upon his face, both bodily and spiritually. 'Has Gríma already told him?' she asked herself, praying that it was not so.

"Good morning, Uncle," she said, and forced herself to smile as she put down the tray on the table. "I brought us breakfast." She bowed down to kiss the old man's cheek while behind her, Gríma closed the door again and approached.

"You are up early, Éowyn," Théoden wondered, and while he still looked ill, he also appeared to be more aware than she had seen him in weeks. Éowyn wondered how that could be as she arranged the dishes and plates on the table.

"I woke up and could not fall asleep again," she lied, feeling the Worm's gaze upon her back. "So I thought we could break our fast together this morning for once in a while." 'And how much nicer it would be if you sent that filth behind me out!'

A thankful smile lit up the old man's eyes, something Éowyn had likewise not experienced in a long time, and he grasped her hand as she sat down beside him. 'He is so much livelier this morning! Oh Béma, can you please let him stay like this?'

"A wonderful idea, my dear."

Théoden's joy was genuine, but Gríma's smug expression as he sat himself down unasked on the opposite side of the table almost curdled the milk in Éowyn's mouth. She put down her mug and stabbed her piercing eyes against the Councillor's in the first duel of the day.

"Whatever it is that made you turn up so early in my uncle's chambers, dearest Councillor, I believe it can wait until the King has eaten."

The smirk on Wormtongue's face deepened. He knew what she was trying to do. He would not allow it. Calmly, he meet her gaze.

"I am afraid it cannot, my lady. It is too important, alas." He shifted his attention to the suddenly straightening Théoden, and silently, Éowyn cursed him. 'Can you not even wait for another thirty minutes to spread your misery, Snake? Can you not bear it to see him happy?'

"What is it, Gríma?" her uncle asked, sudden alarm in his eyes. He swallowed the little bite he had already taken.

"Sire…" Gríma took a deep breath, and Éowyn narrowed her eyes disdainfully at his bad acting. And yet Théoden did not seem to see how fake his councillor's anguish was. "I do not know how to tell you this… it concerns your nephew. Of course it concerns your nephew."

Now the king sighed, and his unnerved expression worried Éowyn greatly.

"What did Éomer do this time? Béma knows my problems are great enough without him adding to them. One would really think the lad could be more considerate."

"That is certainly true, Sire, yet I fear that this time, your nephew has outdone himself. Despite your clear orders to ignore the orcs his scout told us about yesterday, and ride to your son's aid at the Fords, he chose a northern route… towards the Entwood."

The King stared at him, aghast.

"The Entwood? But that would mean…"

"…that your son will wait in vain for reinforcements when the sword strike comes from Isengard. Aye, my lord. I'm afraid that is exactly what it means." Mercilessly, Gríma stabbed his pale eyes against Théoden's, satisfied with what he saw there, and ignored Éowyn's little daggers of hatred. But it was not yet enough… and he had more to give! "That alone is bad enough, as it puts your son in a very dangerous position… but it also endangers us, I'm afraid. For your nephew did not even leave us the forty men of his éored he had promised to strengthen Captain Céorl's éored for the city's protection during his absence. No, he rode forth against that band of orcs with his full strength. One hundred and twenty riders occupied with annihilating marauding beasts in a territory where the worst they could do is trample the vegetation."

"He did not even leave us those riders?" Théoden paled, and Éowyn felt an icy shudder race down her spine.

"I'm afraid not, Sire." Wormtongue lowered his gaze and regarded his hands on the table. "All that stand between us and possible disaster are Captain' Céorl's men. One hundred and twenty riders to protect us, should the enemy decide to make a bid for Edoras while your nephew has gone orc-hunting." His brows twitched. "I cannot say that this thought makes me feel particularly safe, my lord."

"But…" Théoden turned his head, and his horrified and confused look found Éowyn. "Did you know about this, Éowyn?"

"Councillor Gríma told me about it late last night, Uncle," she said truthfully, and Gríma was quick to throw in: "You were already asleep, Sire, and since there was nothing to be done about it anyway, I decided that it could wait until now. Sleep is your greatest ally in getting back to health, my lord."

"Did Éomer mention anything to you about this?"

Éowyn shook her head.

"Uncle, I saw and heard what you heard when he stood before you. I was not granted the opportunity to speak with my brother after he had left the hall. And yet I firmly believe that Éomer must have had a good reason-"

"A good reason to forsake his brother in all but blood and the people of Edoras, you mean?" Wormtongue interrupted her again. "Aye, I can name it for you: your brother is making his bid for the throne!" He looked at Théoden. "Sire, for all these past years I have been warning you about this snake in your house-"

"You will not call my brother a snake, or a traitor, or whatever else in my presence!" Éowyn slid back with her chair and stood up, both hands on the table and raw fury in her eyes, despite her earlier vow to restrain herself. Enough was enough. "Uncle, you cannot believe him! For all these past years, Éomer fought valiantly alongside Théodred! They regard each other as brothers!"

"Which makes this betrayal even more loathsome!" Wormtongue snarled, likewise getting up. Hatefully they regarded each other over the table, their king momentarily forgotten… until Théoden lifted his hand.

"Silent, both of you!" He stared at Éowyn. "What has gotten into you, Sister-Daughter? Is this the way to behave in the presence of your king? And may I remind you of the station of the man you are yelling at? Your conduct is in no way acceptable!"

Swallowing what lay on the tip of her tongue with only the greatest effort, Éowyn lowered her voice, only barely succeeding in not making it sound like a growl.

"I apologize, Sire… and yet I beg you to consider. Your nephew has never given you reason for complaint, no matter what Councillor Gríma says. Under his protection, the Eastmark has been as safe as humanly possible for the past years. The number of lives Éomer saved in all those years cannot be counted. All hold him in high esteem, the simple people as much as our Riders!"

"And yet, alas, it seems clear now that, for all this time, your brother has been following a hidden agenda," Théoden set against her pleading, and the look upon his lined face froze Éowyn's blood. 'Béma help me, he believes Gríma! For the first time in weeks, his mind actually seems to be working, but… he actually believes him!'

"Well spoken, Sire," Wormtongue agreed, slowly sitting down again. His pale eyes found Éomund's daughter. "I realize, of course, how painful this realization must be for you, my lady. And I can certainly understand that you would want to lash out at someone, but I am asking you to bear in mind that I am only the messenger of these tidings. Fact is: your brother was summoned by the Prince, his commanding marshal, for the foreseeable event of a massive attack from Isengard. His king explicitly forbade him to intercept that band of orcs in the middle of nowhere, because the situation at the Fords was way more precarious… and yet Éomer rode forth with his full strength, not even leaving us the forty men he had promised us as protection. No, with his full strength he rode against those orcs, leaving both your cousin and the people of Edoras in a dire position. His actions are neither warranted, nor could they be called inconsiderate or rash… It is what it is, my lady… Sire… It is protest, it is rebellion… and it is treason."

"Alas, Gríma, I fear you are right." Théoden King let himself be heard, with great sorry in his voice. He shook his head despondently. "And I had such high hopes for that lad… it breaks my heart."

Stifling silence followed his words. Éowyn's heart beat furiously, pumped the blood through her veins so vigorously that she could barely hear more than its rush in her ears. With a deep breath, she turned her head. Her uncle sat in his chair, eyes unseeing in the distance behind the walls… pain and regret edged into his features… and she realized she had lost.

"You are wrong…" she whispered breathlessly, beaten and yet defiant. She swallowed, bile rising in her throat.

"Éowyn… will you leave us alone, please?" Théoden looked at her with immeasurable sadness, and instinctively, she understood that her uncle would discuss her brother's fate with the Worm as soon as she was gone… and there was nothing she could do. Or was there? It was a wild idea that suddenly gripped her, a last attempt that could very easily go terribly wrong. A last, desperate measure to resort to which she had to try. She nodded.

"Aye, Uncle. But please, grant me the opportunity to have a private word with you before I go. I promise I will not keep you for long."

"And by 'private', you are meaning-"

"Alone. Without Councillor Gríma." She looked Gríma in the face, grimly satisfied over seeing his obvious discontent. "Please. I beg you."

With a sharp breath, Théoden shifted his attention to the waiting man.

"Councillor, may I ask you to wait outside?"

"My lord, I am not sure-"

"Your king gave you a command," Éowyn lifted her chin. The Worm narrowed his eyes at her, a deadly promise in those pale irises. No doubt planning to let her bleed for this insult by thinking up the most horrible fate for her brother. Not knowing that what she would tell her uncle would foil his plans…or at least she hoped so.

At last, the hint of a cruel smirk tugged at Gríma's lips, and he turned around.

"Very well. I will be waiting by the hearth. My lady… Sire…" He left the King's chambers with markedly measured steps, but Éowyn imagined that she could almost see the thundercloud above his head. It was only a small, temporary victory, but it lifted her mood… if only for a few heartbeats. When the door clicked shut again, she turned around and collected what was left of her courage.

Théoden looked at her questioningly.

"What is it, Éowyn? What do you have to tell me that you do not want Gríma to hear?"

She took a deep breath, and suddenly, a great calm overcame her… and a clear sense of inevitability. If she uttered this, there would be no way back. She locked eyes with the king.

"I know what it is what you are going to discuss with him, Uncle," she said, and closed her eyes for a moment. Pulled herself together. "While you are doing this, I want you to keep this in mind: it is your nephew you will be talking about. Your nephew, whom you raised as your own son."

"Éowyn, I am aware-" Her uplifted hand silenced Théoden.

"But he is also my brother, and he is all I have left of our family." She swallowed, and lifted her chin even higher, looking down on the man before her. "Should you decide to execute Éomer, you should know that you will annihilate the line of Eorl the Young once and for all… for I will follow him. I will kill myself. Let Béma be my witness when I say this. I swear it by Eorl's blood."

The watery-blue eyes before her stared at her in shock, and the silence became deafening. Théoden's mouth worked, but no sound came out. Éowyn inhaled. There, it was out now, and she was bound by her oath. Time to end this, for she felt a great weakness coming.

"I could not live with the knowledge that I was the only survivor of our family, and that my uncle killed my brother unjustly. Nor could I bear the sight of you ever again, Uncle. Bear this in mind: if you kill Éomer, you will kill me, as well… That is all." And without waiting for Théoden's reaction, or asking his permission to leave, she turned around and walked out of his chambers with firm, deliberate steps.


Author's Note:

It's been a while since I posted the last chapter. Mea culpa! I didn't mean to interrupt the story for so long, but a nasty spell of RL prevented me from letting Éomer and his men slay those bloody orcs! I hope I will be able to finish with this before the next wave of frenzy hits, and as always, look forward to hearing from you! I dedicate this chapter to Thanwen, who has been waiting for far too long for her carnage…

Chapter 4: The Enemy


"Will these bastards ever slow down?" Aedwulf growled, his eyes glued to the broad track in the grass as he sat on his hard-breathing stallion. They were back to walking again, a necessary measure to ensure that their horses did not collapse beneath them after countless hours of hard pursuit. "They cannot keep on running like this forever!"

"It *is* unnatural," Anlaf conceded, shaking his head in disbelief. "We should long since have overtaken them. Which makes me wonder…"

Éomer, who had silently been riding beside them for the last half an hour, lifted an eyebrow, wordlessly urging his scout on to elaborate. The older man took a deep breath, and his brow creased with further worry as he stared into the distance before them.

"These orcs demonstrate unusual stamina. What if their powers are otherwise increased to an unnatural level, as well? Provided we ever overtake them… a nasty surprise could be waiting for us when we face them in battle."

Éomer inhaled sharply. Of course! It was only prudent to conclude that their enemies' unusual performance did not end with their increased endurance. He felt Aedwulf's alarmed look upon himself, but addressed his scout.

"Good thinking, Anlaf. I suppose that is indeed very possible." He took a deep breath and at last, met his Captain's concerned look. "We will only find out once we've engaged them. But until then…"

On impulse, he tugged at Firefoot's reins and held up his arm. Quickly, his vanguard closed around him, listening.

"Anlaf here has just made a valid point, something we will need to concern ourselves with once we have found those bloody orcs!" he said. "I assume you all have noticed by now their unusual endurance. By all rights, we should long have overtaken them by now, but something lends them strength." Éomer's gaze travelled over his Riders' expectant faces. "We do not know how far their unusual strength goes. Whether it's only their increased endurance… or increased power and ferociousness, as well."

He saw rising concern in the men's eyes and held up his hand.

"So, once we've found them, I want you to use range weapons only. At least at first. Shoot them with your bows, or throw your spears, but do not get too close. We cannot be sure yet what we are dealing with here. Whether these are a new breed of orc, or whether they have taken a strengthening potion, or…"

Éomer shrugged and quickly swallowed his words about the Necromancer's magic possibly being responsible for their enemies' performance. There was no use in further troubling his Riders by uttering such extreme possibilities. They were all in strung-out shape and would need the rest of their resolve and concentration to remain focussed on their task.

Speaking of which… He narrowed his eyes. Someone was approaching them at breakneck speed, from the direction they were riding at. Seeing his reaction, the others turned around, hands closing around their sword hilts and several bows rising.

"It's Garulf!" Anlaf cried, having recognized the man's unusually coloured mount first. He climbed into the saddle, and a quick heel to his horse's side made the stallion jump into a tired gallop to meet the other scout. A moment later, the man who had first raised the alarm was among them.

"Lord Éomer! Marshal!" Entirely out of breath, it seemed to cost the rider enormous effort just to fill his lungs. "So glad to see you! Are these all the riders you brought?" He frowned with obvious worry.

Éomer shook his head.

"Our full éored is coming. This is only the vanguard. The rest is not far behind us, under Èothain's command."

Relief spread over Garulf's features.

"That is well, for there are well over two hundred orcs ahead of us. You would not have stood a chance with only forty riders." He turned his horse around, aware of how pressed they were for time. "We need to make haste. The enemy has already made it more than halfway to the Entwood. If they reach it before us…"

"Aye. That's why we are here." Éomer gave his men the signal to proceed. Upon his sign, the éored picked up speed again. A quick glance at the sky revealed to him that afternoon was well on its way, and nightfall little more than three hours distant. "How close are we?"

"Half an hour behind them, perhaps?" The older man followed his Marshal's gaze. "Certainly no further. The land flattens a bit from here on until it begins to rise again to the Entwood, so you should soon be able to see them."

"And they will see us." Éomer's mien darkened.

"Oh, they already know you are coming, Marshal." Garulf met his gaze full-on. "They've been running all day as if a wildfire were raging behind them. They know you are on their heels." He shook his head, apparently angry with himself. "I must ask you to forgive me, though, my Lord, as I fear that I will need a brief respite now. I cannot keep up with you. I will rejoin you with the rest of your éored, if you will permit it."

"Of course I permit it, Garulf." Èomer quickly laid a hand on the scout's shoulder. "You've been following them the whole time, you must be on your last legs." He looked the man full in the face. "The Mark thanks you for raising the alarm. You are the reason we are out here."

"I'm doing… nothing but my duty," the older man panted, and then tugged at the reins. His horse was only too happy to comply, and a moment later, the scout was left in the dust of the accelerating éored.

"Half an hour?" Aedwulf directed his stallion alongside Firefoot, and his expression was vaguely hopeful. "So we have been catching up on them."

Éomer nodded grimly as he felt his stallion grumble deep in his chest over his silent plea to run faster. And yet the great grey accelerated once more.

"Aye, Captain. We will catch them before the sun goes down. Mark my words. We will soon be upon them."



Éowyn reined in Windfola and turned her around to face the lonely hill on which Meduseld sat, its thatched roof shimmering golden in the afternoon sun. The cold March gusts played with her tresses and she enjoyed the caress of the clear, cold air upon her face. How she wished to stay here, out on the plains, instead of the stuffy, dark hall! Far away from that sickly pale human monster that had seized control of her home and turned her days into an unending nightmare.

After her memorable scene in her uncle's chambers, she had made straight for her room to don a riding habit and head out, unwilling to tolerate the Worm's presence even a moment longer that morning. She could only guess whether Théoden King would tell him about her threat when they proceeded to discussing Éomer's fate. Of course Gríma would sniff foul play if the King did not agree to his plans, and she did not doubt that one way or the other, he would be able to pry the reason for the older man's reluctance from his mind. How would he react? She would find out very soon.

With a deep breath and a brief quiver in her stomach, Éomund's daughter looked back over her shoulder at her guards and wondered at the same time how wonderful it would feel to be out here by herself. Uncontrolled and free to do whatever she wanted. It was not like they made Éomer take guards with him whenever he felt like going for a ride. She sighed at the injustice. It was also not as if she did not know how to wield a sword, herself. She was fully able to defend herself.

A frown crept onto Éowyn's face as she stared north. Somewhere far beyond her range of vision, there was her brother, just now making his way to the Entwood with his éored to battle those accursed orcs… and, provided he survived that battle, he would be greeted as a traitor upon his return. He would be incarcerated, banished or killed for risking his life to protect those who could not protect themselves. What was the injustice of not being able to roam freely wherever she wished compared to what Éomer was facing? What right had she to complain?

Éowyn swallowed, her temporarily good mood rapidly deteriorating at the thought of having to head back into the snake pit.

"My Lady?" Alfríc, the younger one of her two guards, rode into her range of view, his expression worried. "Is ought wrong? Is there anything we can do for you?"

She looked at him, at the same time appreciating his concern and loathing his intrusion. How young he still was. Younger than Éomer, and already a member of the esteemed Royal Guard. Yet in his eyes she read open concern, for which she was grateful.

"It's nothing, Alfríc," she said with an effort to smile at him. "I was just lost in thought for a moment."

"The sun will soon go down," Wulfhart, the other guard, said as he approached. "We should head back, my Lady."

She nodded, and her heart sank even lower. She knew who would be expecting her at the Golden Hall's doors and she had no way of escaping him. Her stomach tightened at the thought. Never before had the hall's silhouette looked so threatening to her.

"I know."

With a brief command, Éomund's daughter directed her mare back towards the ascending path. The whole way back, her stomach sent clammy shivers through her body, to the point where Eowyn felt no longer certain she would be able to keep its contents down.

She took extraordinarily long to free Windfola of her tack and rub her down afterwards, although the stablehands offered to relieve her of this task. But at long last, the inevitable could no longer be delayed.

It was already dark when she emerged from the stables, her gaze instantaneously drawn to the brightly illuminated hall. Her legs felt like wooden sticks as she ascended the stairs; her hands involuntarily balled into fists. There were the door wards, curiously looking at her and, inclining their heads in greeting, opened the massive wooden door.

Éowyn stepped in, barely daring to breathe. As always, the fire in the hearth did not reach all of Meduseld's niches, but more than her eyes, it were her instincts which told Éomund's daughter that a miracle had happened: Gríma was not there.

Vaguely wondering what he was up to and already knowing that it could be nothing good, the White Lady of Rohan quickly disappeared into her chambers, almost ashamed to feel momentarily relieved.



Another endless slope. Not too steep, but long, and further draining their horses' power. An endless sea of grass waves rolling beneath them and obscuring their sight. All that Éomer could tell was that they had by now passed the flat expense of Eastemnet, and that the land had begun to rise again towards the Entwood and the Misty Mountains behind it.

The sun hung lowly in the sky and cast its orange rays over the hills and dales, thereby turning the landscape into a confusing pattern of light and shadow. And yet suddenly, Éomer straightened in the saddle, a flash of adrenaline shooting through him even before his mind had consciously discerned the reason for his reaction. Something was moving in the shadows before them. An even darker shadow, spread into a thin, long shape that consisted of many separate bodies. At last!

Cries erupted from his riders, and suddenly, tension filled the air.

"There they are!"

"So many!"

"Faster! We must ride faster! They have almost reached the forest!"

Unhooking his horn, Aedwulf cast a brief glance over to his marshal, who gave him a brief nod.

"Let it sound, Aedwulf. They've already seen us. Now, let's put terror into them!" Éomer freed his own horn from his belt, and, upon a short look that showed him that the rest of his vanguard was waiting for his signal, he blew into it.

A sharp, many-voiced alarm rang out over the upwards sloping land under the orange light of the setting sun; an aggressive sound that promised violence and death to the enemy. Even from a distance, the Riders could make out how most of the orcs turned their heads, stumbling as momentum carried them further. No sound could yet be heard of them over the thunder of the éored's hooves, but suddenly, a great group burst from the main body of the orc army, making for the forest with every ounce of strength they had left.

Aedwulf laughed grimly, all exhaustion forgotten at the sight of the enemy.

"Ha, they run like hares! But it will not avail them."

Through Firefoot's laboured breathing, Éomer felt the deep grunt he already knew so well. It was his stallion's way of letting him know that he was ready for whatever his rider would ask of him. That he, too, wanted the death of their common enemy. Thankful, Éomer laid a hand against the wet, grey neck, clapping it. Telling Firefoot that he understood and appreciated his cooperation. Somewhere, after all these hours of hard pursuit, the war-horse found the strength to accelerate.

A brief glance into the orange sun revealed to Éomer that it was the last possible moment for their attack; darkness could be no more than thirty minutes distant. Their shadows lengthened behind them in the red light, while those who cast them had almost reached the deformed blackness trailing the big orc group before them. Soon, they would be upon them, and although the son of Éomund felt strung out after the long ride, he also felt the familiar tensing of his muscles, and the hot stream of battle readiness flooding his body. A grim smile appeared upon his face.

"Ready bows!"

His men reacted at once, grey and blue eyes focussing on the running orcs like a hawk's upon a mouse.

"Fan out! Encircle them before they reach the trees! I need ten riders to follow me! We will overtake and block them!" He looked at Aedwulf. "The rest of the éored is yours, Captain. Bring them up behind and alongside that foul brood. Feel free to inflict maximum damage upon them whilst doing that, just remember: don't get too close yet. Good hunting!"

"And to you, Marshal!" The older man inclined his head in greeting. The next moment, he was gone. Left behind by a powerful burst of speed as Firefoot stretched beneath his rider, hooves hammering the ground in a mad rhythm. It was met by a grim laugh from Éomer.

"Forth, Éorlingas! Let's get them!"

He ducked as the stallion's dark mane whipped his face, enjoying the obvious dismay amongst their enemies as several orcs again burst from the main body of their group, panicking. 'Run all you like, you cannot escape, filth!' he thought, pleased with how quickly they were closing the gap now. Apparently, their foes' unusual endurance was coming to an end. Éomer felt very tempted to send his arrows into the dark mass of wildly fleeing orcs, but fought the instinct down. Once they had overtaken this group, then their exchange of deadly pleasantries would begin, and not a moment sooner… although, he saw, their enemy saw this differently, as several bows were being pointed in his riders' direction.

"Arrows! Watch it!"

A dark, deadly rain rushed at them, shot on the run and most projectiles wildly astray, burying their deadly heads harmlessly in the grass.

Behind him, Éomer heard his men laugh with ridicule, and relaxed slightly. So, those orcs still had the same, weak bows as before. That was good news. There was probably the odd crossbow to be feared, but it was nearly impossible to shoot it with any precision on the run, let alone reload it. Things were beginning to look better.

They were flanking the group now, herding them, in fact. Even as he looked, several of the great orcs stumbled and fell, already being targeted by his vanguard's rear. Before them, dark and forbidding in the growing twilight, the Entwood rose from the ground, a natural barrier for horse and rider, but not for orcs.

They would make it, though. They were just in time! Reaching over his back, he unslung his bow. Now for the hairy part: stopping this dark, fanged mass of stinking beasts from entering the forest. He fitted his first arrow to the string.

"Éorlingas, follow me!" he cried, and swerved right, directly into the path of their enemy.

For a moment, the orcs proceeded, and in the orange light, their gaping mouths with their sets of horrifying fangs were all Éomer could see as they stormed toward him… and then the first row fell, slaughtered by a hail of arrows released by his fellow riders. The beasts immediately behind the felled orcs stumbled over their brethren and mayhem ensued.

They fired a second volley into the orcs, again dropping many of them, but already, Éomer could see the ones behind them raise their bows and crossbows at them.

"Spread out!" he cried, and threw Firefoot around. With a deadly whisper, the arrows raced towards them, and Éomer felt the impact of two of them against his shin guard and chest armour.

Then a great roar rose from the back of the orc group, where Aedwulf and his men had entered the fray, and the Uruks in front of them whirled around. And yet even while they did, Éomer noticed the bright white hand upon their helmets. He cursed. For many months he had suspected the Necromancer to be the source of their troubles in Westfold, and here at long last, was the proof he had been seeking for all this time! His evil grin deepened at the thought what Grima would say once he confronted him with his knowledge.

Mentally making a note to himself to take one of these helmets with him to Edoras when they returned, Éomer released another arrow into the orcs. A quick glance around confirmed to him that his men had succeeded in encircling their foes, and now, even over the din of their melee, the sound of horns rose and announced the arrival of the rest of their éored.

'Thank you, Béma!'

Panic broke out among the orcs now, and again, a group stormed toward him in blind fear, their crude swords raised to hack to pieces everything in their path.

"Back! Come back, you fools!" a loud, guttural voice rose over the din. "Come back or die!"

A sharp swishing sound could be heard, and most of the group fell with arrows sticking out of their necks and heads. The few survivors quickly turned around and ran towards a hulking great shape further back on a little hillock.

Éomer narrowed his eyes as he brought Firefoot to a stop. So, that seemed to be their commander, and it looked as if the great orc had already succeeded in gathering the remainder of his troops and distributing them in a tight circle around himself, bows and crossbows raised and ready to fire at anything within range. A deadly blockade that would claim many lives if they continued with their attack in this way, still over two hundred strong, if he were to risk a guess.

Reluctantly, he unhooked his horn and blew into it, telling his men to stop. The first part of battle was over. It had been clear to him from the first sighting of this group that they could not possibly hope to finish them off in one go, no matter how pressed for time they were. Perhaps a few years earlier, Éomer would have dared it nonetheless, but the shrewd strategist he had become in the meantime knew that a different approach had to be employed now if he did not want to risk his riders' lives.

The signal was quickly picked up and passed on, until, at last, neither orc nor rider on the battlefield were moving. In the last, red light of the sinking sun, men and beasts stared at each other, and all understood that it would be a long night and that not all would live to see the next morning…


Chapter 5: Dark Hours


A last ray of light bathed the battlefield into fiery redness and was reflected on drawn swords and steel armour, then the sun disappeared behind the Misty Mountains, and immediately, the twilight began to thicken.

Éomer knew what their most immediate need was, and as Aedwulf and Anlaf approached to give him their status, he shouted: "I will hear your reports later! We need fires, or those orcs will attack again as soon as it's dark. Send your men to collect wood at the fringe of the forest, but tell them not to enter it! Quick!"

Both warriors checked their horses and took off in the opposite direction. With a wary eye upon the unmoving orcs, Éomer let his gaze wander over the battlefield. There was still movement among the felled enemies, but they lay within range of their brethren's bows, so finishing them off was out of the question for now. He estimated that they had killed or wounded between thirty and forty of the foul brood, and felt slightly disappointed. Apparently, the opposite captain was an experienced warrior, and his strategy promised to keep them occupied for a good while longer.

Éomer sighed and sent a short, concerned glance at the dark red western horizon. Somewhere over there, many leagues away, Théodred was holding off Saruman's hordes right now, counting on his appearance. They could ill afford to waste time in a siege, but sacrificing his riders in a costly attack was something they could afford even less. As difficult as it was, they had to exercise caution for now. Patience was the need of the hour, even if he hated the very word.

From the corner of his eye, Éomer saw a familiar rider approach, and greeted him with a relieved nod.

"Éothain! You came at the right time. Are all your riders well?"

His friend shrugged.

"One rider was wounded when his horse took an arrow to the neck and fell. There was no time yet to examine him, but I fear that he might have broken his leg. His horse we had to put down." He sighed. "So, what now? We cannot attack them like this, it would end disastrous for us. But we can also not wait until exhaustion overcomes them. This would take at least a couple of days."

"I agree." Éomer nodded. "For now, let's build a ring of watch fires around them. We must make sure that they do not slip by us in the dark. I want a fire every one hundred paces, with two guards in the middle, just outside their shooting range. Let's see to this, first, and talk later."

"Aye, Marshal." Turning Scatha around, Éothain took off without any further ado.

Éomer followed his progress for a moment longer, and then cast a dark glance at the sky. The light was fading fast now; their situation still precarious and the standoff fragile. With another deep breath, the Third Marshal of the Mark urged his mount forth, intent on rounding their trapped foes to map the terrain while there was still something left to see. This would be another long night…



"It is a bit loose, don't you think, Maelwyn? I do like the fabric and the colour, but it is too large."

Éowyn tugged at the dark green wool around her hips and regarded herself in the mirror with a sceptical frown upon her face. After her return, she had spent the rest of the afternoon bathing and washing her hair, always expecting the dreadful knock upon her door, which – miraculously – had not come, and now it was time for the evening meal. The tension she had felt at first upon had subsided for a few blissful hours, but now that she was at last ready to leave her chambers, the familiar clammy feeling in her stomach was making a most unwelcome return.

Annoyed with herself, Éowyn decided to get it over with as quickly as possible. She could not hide here from the Worm for all eternity, as if she had done anything wrong. Better to face him head-on and be done with it. And also, she needed to know what they had decided. Hopefully, there would be an opportunity to speak with her Uncle alone later in the evening.

"I seem to remember that it was fitting you well when you tried it on a couple of weeks ago, my lady," her handmaid said, still busy with the laces of her bodice. "You have not been eating too well these past days." Another tug and a knot later, she was finished and looked appraisingly at Éowyn's reflection. "You are looking wonderful in it, my lady. No one will notice that it might be a little loose. It might be just the right thing to wear for dinner, in fact. You will be able to eat without feeling constricted in any way."

"True." Éowyn turned around, a faint, thankful smile upon her lips. "Thank you, Maelwyn. I suppose this will be all for today. Go now, and have a wonderful evening with your family. I have kept you long enough."

"I like to help wherever I can, Lady Éowyn." The young handmaid cast down her eyes, blushing. "Please, speak no more of it."

Éowyn's smile deepened.

"It is appreciated though, Maelwyn," she said, and turned toward the door. "I want you to know this." Time to face what lay behind it. With deep breath, she depressed the handle. 'I am not afraid of him! He cannot harm me!'She stepped into the hall, relieved to see the tables near the hearth well occupied. "Good night, Maelwyn."

"Good night, my lady."

Slipping into her thick woollen cape, her handmaid quickly left the hall, and Éowyn directed her steps over to the tables. In the flickering light of the hearth fire and the torches, Eomund's daughter was able to discern several people of their household, though her uncle was not among them. Neither was Grima. Vaguely relieved, but at the same time wondering again what the Worm was up to that kept him away for so long, Éowyn let her glance wander around the tables and, to her surprise, discovered Éothain's parents at one of them. With a questioning smile upon her lips, she approached the couple and indicated a courtesy.

"Lady Glenwyn… Lord Céorl… How wonderful to see you tonight!"

"And you, my lady!" Céorl, the Captain of one of the Edoras-based éoreds, stood up with an inviting gesture. "You are looking radiant tonight. If you have not already eaten, we would be honoured to share our table with you."

"The honour is entirely mine, Captain. I would be delighted."

Nodding her thanks as she sat down on the bench, Éowyn glanced at Éothain's mother. Approaching her middle years, Lady Glenwyn was a regal, intelligent woman, and it was an open secret that many of her suggestions and ideas found their way into the council by way of her husband. Right now, however, the expression in her piercing grey-blue eyes was worried, and it brought back Éowyn's anxiety with a pang.

Céorl sat back down and looked in the direction of the kitchen.

"Elfgyth was just here a moment ago. I could go and get her-"

"She said she would be right back, my dear," Lady Glenwyn reminded him with a gentle smile and turned to Éowyn.

"What a pleasure to see you, Lady Éowyn. It has been a while."

"Aye," Éowyn nodded. "Three weeks at least, or even four? I must admit, I am surprised to see you in Meduseld tonight. To what special occasion do we owe the pleasure?"

The smile dropped from Glenwyn's lips.

"We were summoned."

"Summoned?" Éowyn lifted her eyebrows, and the cold feeling in her stomach intensified. "By the King?"

"The King and his councillor." Céorl looked as tense as she felt. "We do not yet know why. And Éothain could not tell us as he is on the way to Westfold."

'No, he isn't,' Éowyn thought desperately. 'At present, he is riding north with Éomer. And you have not even been informed about this, yet?' She felt no longer hungry. Had Gríma summoned the couple to let them know that their son would be executed as a traitor upon his return? If he was not permitted to kill Éomer, would he resort to the next best punishment – killing his adversary's best friend?

The older woman's gaze pierced her.

"You would not know what business it is that made Théoden-King call us to the Golden Hall this evening, would you, my Lady?"

'Get a hold of yourself!' Éowyn scolded herself, then forced herself to shake her head. "I'm afraid I cannot tell you," she answered. "I did not see the king all afternoon. Or Lord Grima." Which was the truth. And yet it felt like a lie to her. She was thankful when she saw one of the kitchen staff approach their table with a heavy-looking tray.

"My ladies… Lord Céorl…" The young woman sat down her load and distributed the dishes, bowls and cutlery with skilled efficiency. A wonderful smell wafted to Éowyn, and yet she still asked herself how she was supposed to eat anything now in the presence of the worried couple. Alessa, she remembered the kitchen maid's name, looked at her questioningly. "And what may I bring you, Lady Éowyn?"

Éowyn cast a quick glance at the set table before her, and then back into the freckled young face.

"The soup looks good. That, and a piece of bread, please."

"The boar is particularly good tonight, my Lady," Alessa suggested. "Mistress Elfgyth prepared it all afternoon. She is very proud of it. Shouldn't I just bring you a tiny piece to try-?"

"Just the soup, Alessa. And some wine. Thank you." Éowyn was aware that her tone had been unusually harsh, and she felt immediately sorry when the young woman turned away with tale-tell red hue upon her face. Yet before she could resume the conversation with Èothain's parents, movement at the hall's doors claimed her attention. This time, it was the one she had been dreading to see.

'Where has he been all afternoon?' she wondered as she followed his path with her eyes. His cape looked damp, and his features even paler than usual. He looked cold, as if he had been outside for a long time. But why? 'What hideous plans has he wrought this time… and with whom?'

As if he had heard her thoughts, Wormtongue's head suddenly snapped around, and his colourless eyes found her. For a moment, he stood in the shadows, returning her stare with an unreadable expression upon his face. It was only when the couple at Éowyn's table turned to see what had claimed the Princess's attention, that he finally broke eye contact. A slightly regretful smile appeared upon his thin lips as he approached them.

"Lady Glenwyn… Captain Céorl… how good to see you in our hall. I am afraid though something came up and we will not be able to talk tonight. I would be very grateful if you could return tomorrow around noon. Would that pose a problem for your plans, Captain?"

The broadly built warrior shook his head, his brow creasing. To Éowyn's eyes, he looked suspicious. Their eyes met.

"I was about to take my éored for patrol in the vicinity, but I can easily postpone that to the afternoon without difficulties, Councillor." He turned his head and gave Gríma his full attention, obviously hoping to read something in those pale features. Yet as usual, the other man wore a mask of perfect blandness as he indicated a bow.

"I am glad to hear that, Captain. Then all that is left to me now is to wish you and your wife a nice, quiet evening. Enjoy your meal. We will see each other tomorrow." Wormtongue looked up, and his colourless eyes met Éowyn's, and something in them sent an icy shudder down her spine and knocked the breath from her lungs.

"My Lady, I am afraid though that you will be needed in the King's study once you're finished with your meal. Please, do take your time, but when you are done, your uncle and I will await you."

And with these words, Gríma Wormtongue turned around and disappeared in the thick twilight of the hall. Éowyn could only watch as he made for his chambers until the darkness swallowed him, and a clammy feeling spread in her stomach.

'Something happened. Something bad.'

Gradually it seeped into her conscious that the couple before her was staring at her.

"Lady Éowyn?" Glenwyn asked quietly, concern written into her regal features. "Is ought wrong? You are looking rather pale all of a sudden."

At a loss for words, Éowyn could only return her worried gaze.

"It is only that…" She shrugged and shook her head, not knowing what to say. Céorl nodded grimly.

"You are worried what it might be that he wants to bring to your attention. I understand, my lady. I would be, too. I am, in fact, for I have a feeling that it concerns us all." He stared down at his plate, then at his wife… and back at Éowyn. Contrary to the councillor's wish, it seemed that none of them would be able to enjoy their meal this evening…



Activity along the fringes of Fangorn Forest had all but died down with the fall of darkness. The standoff situation had solidified, with the Rohirrim's circle of fires established around their enemies, and the orcs for some reason or other not daring to test the strength of their defences.

Éomer assumed that, just like his men, the beasts were utterly exhausted. Whatever it had been that had lent them their unusual stamina, obviously it had lost its power by now. Which was well for him, as the pursuit had cost him and his éored likewise every ounce of strength they had been able to muster. This was now the second night without much sleep for most of them after two days of hard riding, and once the excitement of the battle had subsided, exhaustion had hit the Third Marshal of Riddermark like a sack of meal. He could have fallen asleep on the spot. And yet there was no way he would be allowed to sleep even for an hour.

"I do not like this," Éothain uttered in a subdued voice, the flames illuminating his eyes as he stared into the darkness beyond their fire. "Orcs are creatures of the night. If they wanted to break through, they would do it now, under cover of night, before moonrise. They must know we are dead on our feet."

"Well, I assume that they are just as dead," Éomer replied, chewing on a piece of smoked deer meat. "It would be a miracle if they were not…" He inhaled, following his friend's gaze. They sat together with Aedwulf and Anlaf to discuss their strategy for the night now that their fires had been completed. Each of them would command one quarter of the siege ring, and if they wanted to emerge victorious, their plan had to be faultless.

"Still…" Éothain shook his head and then washed the piece of dry bread in his mouth down with a swig of water. "What if they are waiting for something to happen? What if they are waiting for reinforcements? We already have our hands full with this lot, what if there are more on the way?"

The four men regarded each other uncomfortably for a long, silent moment, during which only the crackling of the fire could be heard.

"Saruman is busy preparing his assault on the Fords," Éomer said at length. "At least that is was everyone is believing. I doubt that he would be willing to diminish his forces by sending part of them our way. This group is very large, I would assume he thinks it able to overcome whatever problems arise along the way. He must know that there is hardly anyone left in this part of the Mark. He probably never even assumed that we would ride to meet them."

"We 'believe'," Éothain snorted. "We 'assume'. I tell you what, we don't know! I do not feel comfortable with this dark forest behind our backs. We can easily watch the plains, but what will we do if another orc army bursts out of the Entwood? We will never see them coming."

"You think they'd dare to walk through that forest at night?" Aedwulf creased his brow. "From all I ever heard about that place, it would not be a safe place for orcs, either. Not even during the day. There is no telling what dangers lurk among those trees."

"All the more reason to watch it sharply." Éomer swallowed. "Éothain is right. We will redistribute our forces: each of you will order five of your men to this side of the siege ring. It is, after all, the most likely direction for those orcs to try and break through. Send them over when you head back to your troops."

The others nodded thoughtfully.

"What about sleep?" Aedwulf asked at length. "We are all in strung-out shape. If our men are supposed to kill those orcs tomorrow morning, they will need some respite. We should work out a watch plan."

Éomer inhaled. Aedwulf's suggestion was risky, but he could see the sense in it. Of course, those orcs could decide to move any moment, but he had an inkling that they wouldn't. He narrowed his eyes as he stared into the flames, unseeing.

"We cannot allow for anyone on the forest side to sleep. If they attack, it will be here. So we should work out a rotation. It will still be risky, but I don't see those orcs trying to flee the way they have come. They must know they will die if they make for the open country."

He looked at Aedwulf.

"We will each send a quota of our men over to yours and Anlaf's position to sleep for two hours. There are thirty men at each position right now. Éothain and I will need our full strength awake and ready to do battle at our positions at any given time. So I say that when you return to your posts, each of you sends ten or even fifteen men to sleep. After two hours, you send them over to replace part of our forces here, but take care that theydon't notice the movement." A short nod towards the hillock. "This way, each of the men can get some rest, however brief… if the enemy stays put, that is."

Éomer inhaled.

"There is just one problem that I see – if we get some respite, our foes get it, too. We cannot allow that. We are still outnumbered. If we want to stand a better chance against them tomorrow at first light, we need to keep them on their toes throughout the night… and there is no telling how they will react. We will have to be very careful, or we might provoke the very attack we fear. It is a very fine line we'll have to walk."

"Needle pricks only," Éothain nodded thoughtfully. "Aye, that could work…. But we will need to plan those very carefully."

"It's scouts' work," Anlaf added, sudden excitement sparkling in his grey eyes. "Assassin's work. Two or three men at a time could enter the ring crawling where the light is weakest between two fires. Without armour, carrying only bows and knives, and silently kill any enemy sleeping in an exposed position before they head back."

"And every now and then, we could shoot some arrows at them." Éothain stared at the scout. "The men doing that would have to be very quick to get out of range, though, for their answer will come fast."

All looked expectantly at their commander. Eventually, Éomer nodded.

"All right. Anlaf's group will begin with this…" A brief glance at the starry sky in search of a familiar formation. "…as soon as Felarof's eye has moved over that rock there." He pointed out the dark shadow at the plains behind them. "That's a good hour from now. By then, they should have settled down for good and hopefully, won't be on their guard quite as much. Should that strategy prove successful, it will be my turn, next. Then Aedwulf's… and yours." Éomer met his friend's eyes. "After that, we will decide on a different order for the remainder of the night." He looked around and found only approval in his captains' expressions. He nodded and stood up, followed by the other three. "Each of you has their tasks. Let's get to them."




With great dread, Éowyn stepped into the king's study, mechanically nodding her thanks to the guard who held the door open for her. Although Grima's appearance had thoroughly spoiled her appetite when he had approached them at the hearth, she had taken her time to follow his summons until Éothain's parents had finished their meal and left Meduseld. She had even eaten her soup, although with her thoughts entirely wrapped up in assumptions what the Worm would soon disclose to them, she had barely registered what she had been eating.

Had anything happened to Éomer? Had her brother been wounded … or worse? The moment had finally arrived where – despite her reluctance to hear the councillor's ill news – she needed to find out for herself, for not knowing made her feel even worse, and so she had made her way over to her uncle's study on legs that felt like wooden sticks.

The heavy door closed behind her as she came to a halt, both hands unconsciously balled into fists by her side. A great weight seemed to lie on her chest suddenly, and she found that she could barely breathe.

"I am here," she said so lowly that at first, she wasn't sure that they had heard her. 'They can see that, stupid girl!' a voice in the back of the head scolded her, but she didn't listen to it. Rigid like a statue, she stood in the room and stared at the two men at the desk by the fire. Gríma was just now sitting down again and seemed to stuff something back into his pocket as he turned to her, while the king lifted a goblet from the table and drank. Putting it back, he pointed at a chair beside himself.

"Come here, Sister-Daughter. Grima said that his tidings concern us both."

"I'm afraid they concern everyone," Wormtongue added, following Éowyn's steps like a hawk until she sat down. "Yet you will be first to hear them."

Frozen to her chair, Éowyn barely felt it when Théoden's hand suddenly covered her cold fingers, squeezing them. He was shaking. They both braced and stared at the pale, non-telling mien before them, a single, silent question upon their faces.

"Tidings from Westfold arrived by bird this evening. Marshal Erkenbrand himself sent them." Wormtongue took a deep breath, and with his right hand, produced a small roll of parchment out of his pocket. All of a sudden, the tightness in Eowyn's chest became unbearable. She knew what would follow, and it stole her breath when the councillor began to speak.

"Three days ago, a great army of orcs attacked the Fords. Our combined forces succeeded in throwing them back one more time, although your nephew and his riders, my lord, were nowhere to be seen. - Of course not," he snorted, "…because he was still here, loitering around, before he took off in the wrong direction."

"Éomer did not-" Gríma's commandingly raised hand stopped the words on her tongue. For a few long seconds, Wormtongue's gaze tore into Éowyn's, before he shifted his full attention to the king.

"I fear, my liege, that, alas, this time, our victory was bought at a great cost… for it claimed the life of Prince Théodred, heir to the throne of the Mark… Your son, my lord, is dead."


Chapter 6: Assassins' Game


"Your son, my lord, is dead."

Wormtongue's words were followed by a deafening silence. For a time span impossible to define, only the crackling fire could be heard as the three people in King Théoden's study stared at each other; two of them in dismay, the other one with his usual, unreadable expression upon his face.

'Théodred is a mighty warrior, he cannot be defeated! It is one of the Worm's evil schemes; it cannot be the truth!' a voice in Éowyn's mind screamed in quickly growing despair, while at the same time, certainty grew within her that it was. Somehow, she just knew it, even if there wasn't anything to discover in the pale grey of her opponent's eyes. She knew it from the way her body reacted to Grima's words, from the icy shudder that raced down her spine and the clammy feeling in her stomach. She knew it from the way her cousin's smiling face passed in front of her inner eye, and from how his image made her feel.

From when she had arrived at Meduseld little and orphaned, Théodred – as much as had been in his power – had always been there for her. He had been her confidante once Éomer had joined the Armed Forces and left for Aldburg to roam the Eastmark with Captain Elfhelm's éored. He had kept an eye on the Worm's doings and countered each of his blatant efforts to disparage her brother and drive a wedge between them, and between Éomer and the king.

He had been the main source of her hope… and now she would never see him again. He was gone. Realisation hit Éowyn with the force of a battering ram, and she never even felt it when her uncle's let go of her hand.


"No…" Théoden exhaled, as if all the air in the hall did not suffice to fill his lungs. "No…. Gríma, no! Please, it cannot be!" He was pleading with the man before him now, deathly pale himself and his shaking increasing. Yet Wormtongue could only shake his head.

"I am very sorry, sire. It is a devastating blow… not only to you, personally, but to the kingdom, as well." He lowered his gaze to the parchment in his hands, and then handed it over at his king's silent request.

For the longest time, Théoden stared at the tiny piece of writing with unseeing eyes, unable to read the words. Hoping against hope that it was not the handwriting of the Lord of Westfold he would see when he looked down…but of course, it was. He recognised the precise, narrow script at once. The message, as usual, was in Westron, as there was no written form of Rohirric, and only their officers used the common language for communication… and its words were identical with what Gríma had just told them: 'Attack at the Fords repelled at great cost. Prince Théodred slain…` His sight blurred, and a horrible, anguished wail burst from his lips.

"Oh, Uncle…" Eyes shut tightly against the uprising burning of her tears, Éowyn wrapped her arms around the man beside her. The man who had raised her as his own daughter… the man who would now decide her brother's fate.



It was a strange night. Cold and dark and full of tension that just kept on building with everyone's awareness that with every passing moment, bloodshed was drawing closer. The moon was not yet up, which was vital for their plans to assassinate the orcs in their sleep, but in addition to a thick layer of mist which covered the land like a death blanket, a thin, high layer of cloud had developed in the meantime.

It threatened to obliterate the star formations, and although Felarof's Eye was the brightest star upon the firmament, Éomer was no longer sure for how much longer it would remain to be seen. It had almost reached the rocks he had indicated to his commanders earlier, and so he was ready to turn back from the forest's fringes where he had been standing for some time with Falk, the older brother of the scout who had alarmed them, to await Anlaf's assault on the orcs.

"Nothing is moving, not even a bird," the warrior whispered just now as he stared into the darkness beyond the trees, and white vapour rose from his lips into the chill air. "It is most unnatural… as if the night itself is holding its breath for something to happen."

"Well, something is about to happen, and we better get ready for it," Éomer replied wryly and turned back, a hand clapping the other rider's shoulder in reassurance. "You and Brytta remain here and listen. If you hear or see anything moving in there, anything at all, you know what to do."

"Aye, Marshal." Falk nodded, and Éomer left him standing at the edge of the forest and walked the short distance back to the fires, blowing warm air at his freezing fingers before he rubbed them. Another brief glance at the sky confirmed to him that it was almost time, and as ordered, his men were already awaiting him, their bows unslung and arrows in their hands, ready to react at the first sign of a disturbance. It was not altogether unlikely that the orcs would flee in their direction once Anlaf and his riders made their move on the other side of the siege ring. In that case, they would find themselves greeted by a deadly hail.

Unslinging his own bow and rapidly opening and closing the fingers of his right hand to get the feeling back in it, Éomer settled into the space between the two nearest men and loosely fitted his first arrow to the string. They were ready for action.


Something was moving in one of the shallow furrows which traversed the little hillock. Deep within its sheltering shadows, three men clad in nothing but leathern jerkins, deerskin breeches and woollen shirts, crawled against the wind through the sparse vegetation. They knew that - without armour - their very lives depended on their stealth. In addition to their excellent sense of smell, orcs could detect noises well below the level of what men were able to hear, so it was clear that the lowest noise would give them away. Still, the warriors were confident, having used their special skills countless times before.

To minimize the risk of noise, all three men carried only thin long knives, two arrows each and their bows, thoroughly fastened, so their weapons wouldn't move around while their owners crawled through the darkness. They were almost there.

Holding his breath, Anlaf lifted his head with infinite caution, and found that they had indeed reached the outer ring of their enemy's defences. His keen, night-sighted eyes glided over several large shapes in their immediate surroundings, most of them apparently asleep or dozing, while two more were sitting with their back to them close by, staring in the wrong direction. They wore no helmets. Perfect. They would start with those and then proceed to killing their resting comrades.

With a few soundless gestures, the scout indicated the orc he planned to tackle, and drew his first arrow out of his belt. Another short glance around. All quiet. A little closer, to get a better angle for the shot. On elbows and knees, Anlaf closed in on his target. There now. And his comrades? Lay behind him, their arrows already fitted to the strings of their bows. Waiting for his signal. He turned back and raised his bow. Took a deep, silent breath… and held it as he briefly aimed for the back of the orc's head. These beasts had strong bones, but the arrows would nevertheless penetrate straight through their skulls if they hit the right spot.

He narrowed his eyes… and shot. With a dull sound, both orc guards dropped to the ground. Flawless! And yet out of the corner of his eye, Anlaf noticed sudden motion. The dozing beast next to them began to stir and opened its eyes, but before it could even sit up, Cernhelm had reached it and buried his dagger to the hilt in its eye socket. A moment later, Oswyne slit the throat of its close-by comrade.

Here, death did not come silently. The orc gargled in agony as its black blood sprayed in all directions, and before he could sink his dagger into the beast's chest to end the noise, Oswyne suddenly felt Anlaf's grip around his arm.

"Our time is up. Go!"

All around them now, the beasts began to stir and move toward them, aware of the commotion. A deformed hulking shape approached their hiding spot with long, deliberate strides and lifted its crossbow, but suddenly it dropped to the ground with a pained roar and three arrows sticking out of its fleshy neck. Its assassins slung their bows and came to their feet, knowing full well that only speed could save them now as a guttural voice cried out into the night.

"Whiteskins!" it roared, full of fury. "Whiteskins among us!"


The cry rang all over the battlefield, and even before Éomer could react in any way, the unmoving shadows on the hillock before them jumped into motion… and turned away from them in search of the source of the disturbance.

He reacted instantly, following his instincts. With his arrow ready to be released, he dashed past the fire toward the rise with only a quick shout at his nearest men.

"Come with me!"

Not pausing to see whether they were indeed following him, Éomer stormed even closer until he was certain to be within range, then lifted his bow. So many targets to choose from, there was no way to miss! With a deadly whisper, his arrow buried itself in black flesh. A heartbeat later, several more orcs dropped to the ground with blood-curdling roars as the bows of the Rohirrim found them. Confusion and panic spread among their enemies at suddenly finding themselves assaulted from two sides, but Éomer could also see the first crossbows being lifted in their direction.

"Kill the maggots!"

"Fall back! Fall back, quick!" He dived to the ground and rolled over his shoulder, hearing the buzz of a bolt pass above his head which would have killed him had he still been standing. And yet a pained cry further back told him that at least one of the orc's projectiles had found its target.

Sudden uproar further back. Éothain and his men had entered the fray and provided cover for their hasty retreat. As fast as his legs carried him, Éomer made for the temporary safety behind their fires, and whirled around. A quick glance showed him that all his Riders had made it back, and so he unhooked his horn and blew into it, calling the attack off. If they proceeded with this, it could easily happen that the orcs would see a massive counter-attack as their only chance of survival. No, it was time to let the action die down for now and take stock of what they had achieved.

Slowly, the commotion settled back into an uneasy quiet; the exact thing the son of Éomund had wanted to inflict upon the enemy, and yet – for now – the situation did not only keep the orcs upon their toes. He turned to the nearest man and found that it was Garulf, the scout who had raised the alarm.

"Garulf? I need the reports of the other positions as quickly as possible. How many were injured, or, Béma beware, killed, and what damage they think they inflicted."

The older man nodded.

"I'm on it, Marshal."

He turned away with a sharp whistle, and Hasufel, his dark grey stallion with the instantly recognisable, two-coloured mane, was instantly at his side. They disappeared into the darkness.

With a deep breath, Éomer let his gaze travel over the battlefield. It seemed to him that there were quite a few more unmoving shadows lying around at the foot of the hillock, but they would have to wait for moonrise before any more solid numbers would become available. Which would be in about two hours, if he was not mistaken. The night had hardly yet begun…



It was late when Éowyn left her uncle's chambers to settle down for the night, although she was certain that it would be another one of those nights where sleep seemed to be nothing but a long forgotten rumour. Deep in thought, she directed her steps through the twilight of the deserted hall, thankful that no one was there to see her red and puffy eyes and inquire about what tragedy had befallen her. The news about her cousin's demise would be allowed to spread only in the morning; for tonight, Théodred would only be mourned by his father and her.

She had offered her uncle to stay by his side throughout the night for comfort, but again it had been the Worm who had successfully intervened. It was vital for his health that the King rested, he had said, and to her dismay, Théoden had not objected. It was foreseeable that even more difficult times were waiting for the Mark, Gríma had then explained, and many hard decisions needed to be made, which would require their ruler to be in the best possible constitution. A strong sleeping draught would ensure that the King found rest despite their tragedy. And with those words, he had produced a phial from the depths of his pockets and held it up.

Unconvinced that Gríma's suggestion was indeed what her uncle wanted, Éowyn had lowered her gaze to meet Théoden's sorrowful eyes, and his almost imperceptible nod had crushed her. How could it be that apparently, she was the only one longing for solace in this dark, hopeless night? Was it all the Worm's doing? Had Éomer been right after all, in his suspicion that his chief concern had always been to drive wedges between the members of their family, to estrange them from each other and thus, weaken the kingdom?

'Oh Éomer,' Éowyn thought with despair as she reached for the door handle to her chambers. 'What will you do once these tidings reach you? Will you understand that you will be in mortal peril if you return to Edoras, and flee?'

She almost wished for it, although it would also mean that – in all likelihood – she would never see her brother again. 'But at least he would live!' – 'He would never flee! He is convinced that he was right in riding out against those orcs, fleeing would mean to admit that he was wrong.'

The question was whether these news would even reach her brother in the field. If Éomer heard of Théodred's death only once he had returned to Edoras… She inhaled sharply.

'He needs to be warned! But how? I don't even know where he is now…' – 'And whether he is still alive.' a fatalistic voice in the back of her mind, which she had not known so far, added coldly. 'He rode into battle. Anything can happen in a fight. An arrow could find him, or Firefoot could fall and crush him…'

She shut her eyes, willing the horrible scenes which threatened to overwhelm her back into the confines of her subconscious.

'I must not think like that. Èomer is one of our greatest warriors-' 'So was Théodred.'

Her hand on the door handle hesitated. A sudden impulse was rising within her, growing ever stronger. Éowyn turned around. Apart from the guard before her uncle's chambers, the hall was all but deserted at this late hour. With a deep breath, Éomund's daughter directed her steps over to her cousin's rooms and quickly slipped into the darkness behind the massive doors. With the situation at the Fords strained for weeks before the massive blow had finally come, it had been a while since Théodred had last stayed in them, and still it seemed to Éowyn as if she could almost feel her cousin's presence.

It took a moment before her eyes adjusted to the darkness. There was no fire in the hearth, no warmth in here, and yet she felt somehow soothed. Gradually, the outline of Théodred's chambers became clearer in the weak light of the veiled moon, and so Éowyn walked over to the window and lowered herself into the massive armchair. Subconsciously, her hands caressed its soft leather, and once again, her tears spilled over.

'Oh Théodred… What am I supposed to do without you now? How can I win this fight all on my own?'

How could he be gone? How could such a vibrant, loving and giving man simply be reduced to a heap of cold, lifeless flesh?

Éowyn's gaze fell upon the portrait beside the big four-poster. In the twilight, she could not make out all the detail, but she knew this painting by heart and even remembered the days when it had been done almost ten years ago by Goldfred, easily the most esteemed painter in all of the Mark and a long-time member of the royal household. It had been taken in better times, easily recognisable by the expressions on their masterfully captured likenesses; a mirror to the past. None of their emotional scars were visible here, no illness, and no bitterness yet over wrongful accusations and subtle estrangement brought about by the Worm. She loved this painting, and yet it also hurt her to look at it, because it made her realise how far things had spiralled out of control.

All four of them were on it, regally attired: the men in their armour, she wearing her best dress and her hair artfully plaited around her head. Éomer, who had joined the Armed Forces only one year earlier, looked incredibly proud as he stared out of the painting at her. With a faint smile, Éowyn remembered their discussion that day. Her brother had resolutely refused the painter's request to sit down in front of his uncle and his cousin and next to his sister, determined to look his fiercest best, which had resulted in all of them having taken their portrait standing. To the fourteen year old she had been then, the hours had felt impossibly long and tedious, and inwardly, she had cursed Éomer repeatedly for his stubbornness when her feet began to hurt. Yet once the finished painting had been revealed to them, Éowyn had felt that all effort had been justified.

She was glad to have it now, even if her broken heart bled worse than ever when her gaze found her cousin's face. Théodred's image was so lifelike, it stole her breath. He seemed to smile at her from the canvas, his piercing blue eyes silently reassuring her that there was nothing to fear in the world; nothing they couldn't overcome.

'You were wrong, Cousin. The evil in the world is getting stronger, and slowly but surely, it is swallowing us, one by one…'

She rose to her feet with a start. Éomer needed to be warned, there was no way around it. What he would make of it was his own decision, but damned would she be if she would let her brother ride blindly into a trap. Théoden's reaction to her earlier vow had satisfied her, as it had seemed that the old man had indeed understood the earnestness of her threat. And yet in the darkness of her cousin's room, faced with the worst development possible, Éowyn felt no longer certain that even her drastic promise sufficed in keeping her brother alive. Further steps needed to be taken.

Finding what she had sought – quill and parchment – on her cousin's massive work desk, Éowyn set to work…



"Wait… Just hold him down… for another moment… I can see it now… I've almost got it. There!"

With triumph in his eyes, Tolgor showed Éomer the last piece of the broken arrowhead he had dug out of Háfa's shoulder. The young man slackened in Éomer's grip, the pain of his ordeal clearly edged into his tired features as he gritted his teeth.

"Gods, I won't need this again in a hurry…"

Releasing his iron hold, Éomer gave his exhausted rider a cheering clap on the back as he started to rise and helped the man up.

"Then see to it that you are quicker to duck next time, Háfa," he said, relieved to be done with this gruesome business. Two of his riders had been wounded in their attack, yet thankfully, none of them seriously. According to Garulf's report, Éothain's men had not been quite so lucky, having suffered one casualty and another man seriously injured, and there had been two more injured warriors at Anlaf's position. While such things always had to be expected in battle, Éomer hoped sincerely that the rest of their riders would emerge from this gruesome and demanding night unscathed. It would be hard enough to stand his ground against the Worm upon their return to the snake pit that Meduseld had become, if they succeeded in killing these orcs without any further casualties; this task would become considerably harder if they passed the city gates with half of their riders wounded… or worse.

Yet he felt still convinced of the necessity to destroy this band of the necromancer's foul brood, Éomer thought as he rose from his knees with a deep sigh. There was no telling what damage these orcs could have done to the Mark, had they been permitted to reach their destination – wherever it was – unchallenged.

His gaze strayed once again back to the dark hill. After a period of increased tension in the aftermath of their attack, things had settled back into the previous watchful standoff. More waiting to be done, more hours of idly sitting around the campfire, dead tired and yet ready for action at the slightest sign of a disturbance. He did not welcome the prospect.

Somewhere further up on the hillock, the encircled orcs suddenly seemed to quarrel over something, and he creased his brow at their furious roar, wondering what it was that had enraged them.

Éomer could no longer deny that he felt thoroughly knackered, like a hollow imitation of a human being someone had filled with rocks. But how, with everything that was going on, was he supposed to sleep now? How—

The bellowing was coming from behind!

Something moved at the periphery of his field of vision. Something bright. Rather sluggishly, Éomer turned and looked up. It was fire, his mind registered numbly. Shooting across the sky in a curved trajectory, like… an arrow…. a fire arrow. The alarm!

He had not even drawn the breath for a cry when there was a sharp thwack and Háfa, the young rider he had helped up just moments ago, stumbled toward him as if pushed forward by unseen hands. His mouth opened, but instead of words, a red flood shot out of it and flooded down his chin, an orcish arrowhead protruding from his chest. Mesmerised by the gruesome sight, Éomer caught the warrior just as Háfa's knees buckled, and his eyes darted frantically around for the source of the attack… towards the Entwood's border. He froze.

They were coming out of the forest, hulking great Uruk-hai bearing the White Hand upon their massive brows!

Letting Háfa fall as he unslung his bow with a swift move, Éomer dashed towards their attackers, and all hell broke loose…

Chapter 7:  Snake Pit



With a sharp whistle, Éomer called his stallion, and then shot his arrow into the mass of orcs. It was quite a big group, he noticed, fifty at least. All Uruks, if he was correct. His men, well-instructed when they had pitched camp, had quickly overcome their initial shock and were already answering the devastating hail with arrows of their own once they had found cover.

Someone was moving behind him! A quick glance over his shoulder revealed that it was Garulf, already in the saddle to intercept the enemy. But there was something else he needed from his scout right now.



"I will lead the riders, myself. I need you to draw the ring around our group closer. We must prevent that the two groups merge! Send word to the other commanders, as well! Do it right now!"

The scout creased his brow as he watched his commander jump into the saddle of his big grey stallion.

"What about their arrows?"

"They have been shooting at us for most of the night," Éomer said, with a quick look back at the hillock. Sure enough, those orcs looked ready to test their defences, now that their brothers had arrived. "I doubt they have many left. Anyway, we must risk it. See to it that they stay put and leave the rest to me."

"Aye, Marshal!" Kicking his heels into Hasufel's flanks, the scout took off.

Éomer turned back and found himself surrounded by his mounted riders.

"Éorlingas! Follow me!"

His war-cry was enough to spur Firefoot into an explosion of speed. Contrary to their riders, the horses had been able to enjoy a lengthy respite for most of the night, and it showed now in their attack. Although, with most of the men commanded to contain the group they had encircled, their mounted forces counted only twenty horsemen, they hit the orcs with the force of a rockslide.

Having switched from bow to sword for close combat, Éomer saw several Uruks stumble and fall even as they approached them, felled by arrows and spears. Then a hulking dark shape barred his way and roared. A spiked club swung toward them. With a subtle shift in the saddle, Éomer helped Firefoot evade the blow, and then grinned when the stallion bucked and kicked out. His hooves found their aim with a dull thud. Their attacker grunted, and before he could recover, there was a silver reflection and a sharp sound, and his head tumbled to the ground.

All exhaustion drowned out by battle fever, Éomer threw Firefoot around in search of their next enemy, and felt the impact of an arrow upon his helmet. Luckily, the projectile glanced off, and only a moment later, they were both accelerating towards the shooter. Horrible fangs were bared at them as the Uruk dropped the bow to unsheathe its sword, but it was too slow. Rammed to the ground by the war-horse's mighty shoulder, the orc spat black blood as a spear nailed it to the soil only a heartbeat later.

Looking up, Éomer found his friend Éothain grinning at him.

"You've got the wrong weapon in your hands, my friend. This is work for the spear and bow!"

Éomer narrowed his eyes.

"Just see to it that you won't get to taste my sword before this night is over, Captain!" he growled in mock-threat, and Éothain's grin widened as he shook his head.

"A simple 'Thank you' would have sufficed, Marshal!" He looked around and laughed. "It seems they've got enough! Look how they run!"

"Probably never even expected us to fight back." Éomer spat. "We can't let them escape, though. Can I leave their pursuit to you? I need to get back and see what the situation is with our group. I hope they didn't try to break through in the meantime." He looked back, but the night was too dark to see what was happening behind them. Éothain nodded, and turned Scatha around.

"Consider it done."

The next moment, he was gone, and Éomer pushed his at first reluctant mount back towards the fires, clapping the sweaty neck in thanks. As he approached, Éomund's son found indeed that their captives had made their bid for freedom, seeing quite a few more dark shapes lying unmoving around in the weak light. And yet it appeared that his men had already beaten down the attempted outbreak and drawn their encirclement much tighter. They were now patrolling the terrain a good distance before their fires, almost at the foot of the hill. Things were drawing inexorably toward their end.

To his surprise, it was Aedwulf who greeted him with an implied nod.

"Marshal… I came over from our side, as I figured that both you and the Captain would be fighting the newcomers." A thin smile crept upon his lips as he stared for a moment into the darkness behind Éomer. "I must say, I expected them to last a little longer, though."

"Let's be thankful they didn't… Éothain and his men are in pursuit, they should be back shortly, I hope…" Éomer narrowed his eyes. "How are things here?"

"It seems that our lot doesn't have any arrows left to shoot at us, and by tightening our ring, they can't even hope to retrieve any of those they wasted…" Aedwulf inhaled and creased his brow. "They did try to make for the forest again once your riders took off, though, and it seems that there were some casualties, although we are still in the process of gathering information. For now, it seems that we lost at least five of our men. Háfa…Dúnfara…Balfred… Fenda… und Déorred. There are also two or three more seriously wounded. I dare not say whether they will live to see the light of day. Tolgor is working on them now, but…" He shrugged, and the message was clear.

"Béma…" Éomer shook his head and inhaled. This was the one part of his responsibilities he would never get accustomed to, although in a war, loss of life had always to be expected. "It's time for this night to end." He descended from Firefoot's back and gave the stallion a hearty clap on the shoulder, dismissing him for the moment.

"First light can be no further than two hours distant." Aedwulf's stared at the eastern horizon. "Let's hope those orcs are just as tired as we are."

"They must be, or they would still attempt to flee. They know what awaits them once twilight comes." Taking off his helmet, Éomer felt exhaustion ready to pounce on him once again, yet this time, with a vengeance. He found it increasingly difficult to keep his thoughts together. His captain cast him a sharp glance as he rubbed the bridge of his nose, and lowered his voice conspiratorially.

"I know that in our state, an hour of sleep is not much. Yet may I be so bold and suggest it to you, Marshal? Most of our men had an hour or two this past night, as did I. I could take over for you in the meantime. I doubt there will be much action."

Éomer grimaced.

"Hell, is my state so obvious?" Aedwulf's expression told him that it was. He snorted. "I guess I'm simply too exhausted to argue. All right, take over, Captain. But at the first sign of movement-"

"I'll personally kick you in the back. Understood."

The older man grinned, and for a moment, Éomer stared back at him in search of a retort, but the words wouldn't come to him. Leaving it at that, he just shook his head and walked back to the fire where he had earlier left his bedroll. Sleep found him as soon as his head touched the ground.


Éowyn woke with a start. With her heart beating like a drum, she stared into the darkness above her, unable to recall what it had been that had so abruptly ended her night. The hand with which she wiped her eyes found wetness upon her face. She paused, trying to recall what had made her weep in her sleep… and then it came back to her. Théodred… was dead. And her brother would be welcomed as a traitor upon his return to the city of kings… if he returned. Nothing about that had changed in those hours of merciful oblivion she had unexpectedly been granted. No wonder she had wept…

Éowyn sat up, and a wave of disorientation washed over her as her eyes wandered over to the window. These were not her chambers. Where was she? Creasing her brow, Éomund's daughter swung her legs over the edge of the bed, noticing that she was still fully dressed. It was the painting near the four-poster which brought her memory back.

'I'm in Théodred's chambers. I never made it back.'

A quick glance at the table showed that the parchment she had drafted a few hours earlier was still lying there.

'I better get going. No one will see me when I slip out of the hall now… or at least, he will not see me…'

Abruptly, she came to her feet and walked over to the window to cast a quick glance outside, absent-mindedly trying to smooth the creases in her dress. The eastern sky was still dark, and yet it felt to her as if first light was not so distant anymore. Countless nights without sleep had left her with quite an acute sense of time, as enervating as the experience had been. With a last sorrowful look at the portrait, Éowyn directed her steps over to the table and picked up the letter, then further on to the massive door.

Careful not to make a sound, she opened it and glanced into the twilight of the hall, not realising that she was holding her breath. The hearth fire and two more torches by the door were flickering lowly, yet Éowyn could not detect anyone in their meagre light. Relieved, she slipped out of her cousin's chambers and soundlessly began to make her way over to her own rooms in the shadow of the beautifully decorated pillars.

There were muffled sounds emanating from the kitchens, confirming to her that morning was on the way, but apart from that, nothing moved. Why was it, then, that she suddenly felt the short hairs on the nape of her neck rise? Almost as if—

"You're up early, lassie!" a guttural, deep voice suddenly reached her ears, and a heavy hand fell upon her shoulder. Her heart stopped. "What are you doing out here?"

At last recognising the voice, Éowyn turned around, eyebrows highly arched at the crude address. Of course, it was the Worm's bulky personal guard, and Béma, he stank! Had he been here all night, possibly drinking? He surely smelled like that.

"I do not believe that I have to declare myself, guard!" she said icily, and shook off his hand. "Least of all to you. You are drunk! Get out of my sight, or your master will hear of this!"

"Oh, I will absolutely make sure that my master hears of this," the man leered. "After all, it was he who told me to sit here all night, sniffing that you might try something funny…"

'Felrod,' Éowyn suddenly remembered the ruffian's name. "His name is Felrod.' She narrowed her eyes at the dishevelled looking guard.

"Try something funny?' ´she snarled, now furious. "Who do you think you are that you speak with me in this tone?"

The big guard seemed less than intimidated. He nodded.

"What have you got there in your hand? Let's see this!"


Felrod stepped closer, apparently trying to wrench the parchment from her fingers. In an attempt to escape him, Éowyn suddenly felt the pillar at her back, blocking her retreat.

"I will most certainly not-" Strong, rough fingers closed around her forearm, prompting an instant, impulsive reaction. A heartbeat later, her hand landed with a sharp slapping sound in the man's face. "Are you mad? Get off me… this… instant!"

The dark eyes before her suddenly seemed to blaze hellfire.

"You're going to regret that, lassie!"

"Help! Help me! Anyone!" From somewhere further back, the sound of opening doors reached her ears even through the mad beating of her heart, followed by the sound of running feet.

"Back off! Back off now!"

It was Gamling's voice, and in all the years Éowyn had lived in the Golden Hall, she had never heard the guard so furious. She felt impossibly relieved… yet even now, Felrod refused to step away, although there were even more people investigating on the commotion now.

"This is not your concern, old man. You better-"

The sound of a sword being unsheathed in a rush. The next moment, the hearth fire reflected on steel as Gamling advanced.

"I am a captain of the Royal Guard, Felrod. The protection of the royal family is my concern. So if you want to keep your head upon your neck, you will step back now! I will not say it again!"

A few breathless heartbeats passed… before, with a broadening grin, Felrod lifted his hands and took two provokingly slow steps backwards, his attention focussed on the older warrior.

"You are hindering me from performing my duty, old man. The Counsellor will not be amused to hear this."

"Your duty is to assault the Princess of the Mark, Felrod? If that is indeed the order you were given, you will tell me now who gave it to you!"

"His order was to investigate any suspicious movements no matter by whom, and it was given by me!" Gríma's cool voice could suddenly be heard in the thick silence, and Éowyn held her breath as she stared over her protector's shoulder.

His hands clutching the collar of his hastily donned robe, Wormtongue stepped closer, and his pale eyes sparkled maliciously in the weak light. And still Gamling refused to sheathe his sword.

"'Suspicious movements', Counsellor? Is the Lady Éowyn no longer allowed to move through the hall as she wants? Did I miss something?"

A thin-lipped sneer appeared on Wormtongue's lips as he shifted his attention from the guard to the king's niece.

"Alas, dear Gamling, I fear that there have been developments this past night of which you are yet blissfully ignorant. And yet I am afraid that they will greatly impact on how things are going to be handled within this hall in the future." The sneer became more pronounced. "So enlighten us, my lady. What have you been doing outside your own chambers at this ungodly hour? If your purpose was innocent, surely you can tell us."

Feeling heat rise to her head, Éowyn lifted her chin.

"Your guard saw me emerge from my cousin's chambers, it is not so, Feldrod?" She did not wait for an answer, did not even look at the big halfblood as her eyes tore into Grima's. "In the light of what you disclosed to us last night, what reason could you possibly imagine for my being there? You always pride yourself with your knowledge of people; surely you cannot fail now."

"Of which developments are you speaking?" Gamling asked, uncertainty in his weathered expression as he first looked at Éowyn and then back to the counsellor. Further guards had gathered behind him now, regarding each other uncomfortably. "What happened?"

"Very well…" Grima turned his head. "We were going to disclose the tragedy which has befallen the Mark later this morning; I only informed the royal family about it last night. Yet since we are already discussing it and it is relevant to what's going on here…" He straightened, fully aware of the impact of his words. "Tidings arrived from Westfold last night. The attack we all feared was fended off by our forces… yet, alas, not before it had claimed the life of the Prince."

The silence that followed his words was deafening, and even in the twilight of the hall, the growing dismay in the faces before him could not be mistaken. Mercilessly, the son of Gálmód stared them down, not having missed the sparkling of new tears in Éowyn's eyes.

Stunned, Gamling turned back towards her.

"My Lady, is it… is it true? Prince Théodred…is dead?"

Unable to speak through the painful tightening of her throat, Éowyn nodded. Behind her, she heard the sudden painful sobs of the kitchen staff. Most of the women had known Théodred from his childhood. How horrible for them to hear about his death in such a brutal fashion!

"Slain by our enemies, due to the Third Marshal's refusal to strengthen the Westfold forces at the Fords. Lord Erkenbrand drafted the letter himself." Gríma narrowed his eyes. "This is also something you have not heard of yet, I take it, Lord Gamling? That the king's nephew disregarded his commander's summons and rode north instead, presumably to pursue a band of orcs on the edges of the Entwood… far away from any settlement they could have endangered."

Gamling blanched, and again his confused look found Éowyn, silently asking her for verification of the counsellor's claims. This time though, Éomund's daughter evaded his eyes. It was answer enough.

Grima inhaled.

"So you see, my Lord, that there is indeed a lot more going on than you might have suspected. And as much as I loathe having to take these measures, it is was must be done in the wake of such betrayal." His eyes found Éowyn again. "So while I do not want to believe that you had anything to do with your brother's folly, my Lady, it is my duty to ask you what you were doing in the Prince's chambers… all the more as you have not been in the habit of entering them during his absences ever before."

Desperately struggling for composure while all heads turned toward her, Éowyn somehow managed to utter: "My cousin had never died before. I felt that I needed to be at a place where I could feel his presence… where I could grieve for him." Her tone sharpened. "You wouldn't understand."

"She took something with her when she left, Lord Gríma," Felrod made himself be heard from behind. "Some kind of parchment. A letter perhaps. I was about to have a look at it when she began to make this ruckus!"

"You will cease to speak about the Lady Éowyn in this disrespectful manner at once!" Gamling growled, and his eyes sparkled furiously. Gríma lifted his hand.

"Silence, both of you!" His predatory glance focussed on Éowyn once again. Briefly he looked down to where her hand disappeared behind her back, before his eyes narrowed. "Is Feldrod right, my Lady? Did you take something from your cousin's study?"

'Stay calm!' her inner voice warned against the increasing feeling of being an animal in a snare. The mask! She needed the mask! She lifted her chin, and – to Wormtongues' visible surprise - produced the parchment from behind her back, although she was not offering it to her opponent.

"Aye, Counsellor, I admit it. I took this unfinished letter of my cousin's. It is addressed to me, so I felt that I was well within my rights. And don't ask me to show it to you, because that would be well beyond your rights!" Her heart beat like crazy. 'If that is how every lie feels, it is no wonder the people of the Mark rarely use it!'

"I regret having to inform you that, in the event of committed treason, my rights are extended," Gríma informed her, and extended his hand, palm up. "I thought you would understand the necessity, Lady Éowyn. Especially as the traitor's sister."

Her eyes sparkled dangerously.

"My brother did not commit treason, Counsellor, whatever you say. And you better do not say it again in my presence, for I cannot vouch for what I would do in that case."

With a deep breath, Gamling stepped between the two combatants.

"I will take over from here, Counsellor. As Captain of the Royal Guard, it is my duty anyway." He turned around to the listening crowd. "I realise that what you heard here was a shock. And yet may I ask you to return to your workplace again and leave us alone, please? I will guide the Lady Éowyn to her chambers now, and whatever new developments happened last night, they will have to wait until later." He nodded thankfully as the members of the royal household turned away, silently sobbing. And yet Gríma did not move.

"You are obstructing necessary investigations, Lord Gamling. You must know that I will have to bring this before the king."

"Oh, I absolutely count on it, Counsellor," the older warrior replied, involuntarily straightening. Éowyn felt immeasurably thankful. "Because these happenings need to be discussed in full between the king, you, and the entire Royal Guard. Until later." Gently, he laid a hand on Éowyn's shoulder and steered her away, feeling their opponent's piercing gaze between his shoulder blades until he closed the door to her chambers behind them.

For a moment, both remained silent. Éowyn felt too drained to do more than walk over to her table by the window and sit down. It Gamling had not intervened… She closed her eyes, sending her thanks to Béma.

"How certain is it that the tidings from Westfold are sound, my Lady?" There was still hope in the old warrior's voice. She hated having to crush it.

"I saw the parchment myself last night," Éowyn said lowly. "It did look like Erkenbrand's handwriting… although I suppose that there is no way to be entirely certain until his messenger has arrived. He promised a full account of the attack in writing." She looked wearily at her saviour.

Gamling nodded.

"Then it is also true that your brother did not make for Westfold when he left? That he went against the King's orders?"

Her heart bled anew.

"I do not know more than what you have just heard, Lord Gamling. Yet even if it were the truth, Éomer stated his reason to pursue the enemy loud and clear when he asked for leave. I could certainly follow his reasoning." She inhaled, and without warning, her gaze intensified. "But I know one thing for certain: Éomer loved Théodred like a brother. It tore him apart not to be able to ride to his aid, I could see that. He has no ambition whatsoever for the throne. He feared these prospects, in fact! We talked about it once, that he would succeed our uncle if anything were to happen to our cousin, and he told me that he prayed each night that it would not come to pass. My brother loves the open plains, Lord Gamling. He loves to be out there with his men, protecting our people, and being confined to the Golden Hall and having to deal with politicians of the likes of a Gríma Wormtongue on a daily basis is a thought that horrifies him! You have known him from when he was little, you must see this, too!"

For another long, silent moment, Gamling regarded her with what looked almost like pity, and in his face, Éowyn could see contradicting emotions. When he finally answered, his voice was low.

"I have not only known your brother since he was little, my Lady," he began hesitantly. "I have known you for all those years, as well. Therefore it is clear to me that what you were hiding from the Counsellor and his henchmen is a warning for your brother."

The room began to spin around Éowyn and a cold shudder raced down her spine. If Gamling knew… did Gríma know, as well? Had it been so obvious? She could only stare at the warrior who had rescued her, not knowing what to say. Not knowing how to deny the truth he had just uttered.

"I cannot let Éomer return into a trap, Gamling," she whispered, somewhere realising in the back of her mind that she was pleading. "The Worm will try everything in his power to have him executed. You must know that! How could I, as his sister, let that happen?" The Captain of the Royal Guard inhaled deeply, and leant his back against the door. The expression upon his face worried Éowyn greatly. "You do not believe the accusations, Captain. Do you?"

For the longest moment, Gamling could only stare back at her. And while at first, the emotion upon his face had been mainly confusion, Éowyn was dismayed to find that it had changed to regret.

"I do not want to believe the accusations, my Lady." He shook his head. "Fact is, I do no longer know what to think. It is a lot to digest in one serving." Another long pause. Another deep breath. "I hope Marshal Erkenbrand's messenger arrives soon with the letter. I cannot make up my mind before we have some solid information… and I need to see your brother's eyes when he hears these tidings. I need to see his reaction, before I can make up my mind."

Éowyn nodded, already sensing that the Captain of the Royal Guard was not done yet. She tensed when she realised what he would ask of her. Her stomach turned to ice even before he had uttered the dreaded words.

"Lady Éowyn… I am glad the Counsellor did not see your message, but I'm afraid that I cannot let you send it, not only for the reason I just stated." His eyes wandered over to the fire, and then returned to her. The message was clear. Her sight blurred.

"Gamling… oh Gamling, please… Don't make me…"

"I am sorry, my Lady." He avoided her gaze now. "It must be done. Otherwise, I will no longer be able to protect you."


Chapter 8: Red Dawn

Author's Note: Oookay, here it comes… the big, ugly, battle! Be warned, it's going to be pretty graphic (about as graphic as I dared to write it without having to fear that I might be banned). If this is not your cup of tea, I truly understand, but after seven chapters of foreplay, I felt the need to indulge myself… and a certain someone, who has been waiting for this for far too long!  – Reviews will – as always – be happily accepted!


Éomer had not even begun to dream when an insistent prodding disturbed his rest. Exhausted to the core, the son of Éomund had instantly fallen asleep on his bedroll; a sleep so deep it rather resembled unconsciousness. Now, a voice in the back of his mind made itself be heard, insisting that it was time to wake, that he was urgently needed. 'Leave me alone…' another sleep-drugged voice protested against the strange impulse. It felt like a big rock that was tied to one end of his awareness, a weight that would pull him deeper and deeper if he only allowed it. He did not.

'The battle… - It's not yet time. I just lay down!'

The prodding again. Stronger this time, with its epicentre at his hip. Rocking him. Impossible to ignore.

"Bloody hell…" He groaned. An attempt to swat the disturbance away, eyes still closed.

"Marshal? Marshal Éomer! It is time."

Somewhere deep in the back of his consciousness, Éomer recognized the voice, even if the name of its owner escaped him at the moment. 'Captain… one of my captains…' That did the trick. Somehow, under mobilisation of the entire rest his considerable willpower, he rolled onto his back and chanced a look through the small slits of his half-opened eyelids. 'Aedwulf…'

The warrior in front of him smirked, knowing only too well how waking after a much too short break after everything they had been through felt from own experience.

"My sincerest apologies, Marshal," Aedwulf offered. "But dawn is on its way. Can't be more than an hour off... perhaps even less." He knelt down and held out his hand with a mug of steaming, strong-smelling contents. "Here, have some Everlast. We've made it extra strong. This will get you on your feet in no time."

Numbly, Éomer accepted the mug and peered with revulsion at the thick liquid. Everlast was a brew from a variety of herbs and roots, concocted by their older healer Fúlgrim in Aldburg a few years earlier, and had quickly risen to be regarded as an absolute essential for the Armed Forces. It tasted hideous, like a mixture of warg piss, rotten meat and swamp mud, but its properties never failed to lend an exhausted warrior new power. There was no telling how many exhausted men it had saved since its discovery, and so Éomer did not even consider complaining as he put the rim of the mug against his lips and emptied it with four deep swigs.

"Ugh…" He grimaced and spat, and wordlessly, Aedwulf offered him his water skin. Three more swallows quickly washed the revolting taste from his mouth, and he returned the vessel to his captain. "So many dream of riding with the éoreds," he coughed as he rose to his knees. "I wonder if they would still do so if they knew they'd one day have to wake to this taste…"

"Ah, the joys of life on the plains!" Aedwulf grinned, and helped his commander up.

Massaging his hurting neck, Éomer's first glance went to the east, and it confirmed to him what his brother-in-arms had already told him. Daylight was on the way. Which was good. It was about bloody time they were done here. Many leagues to the west, Théodred was waiting for them… He turned around, now scrutinising what he could make out on the little hillock.

"Did they try anything?"

Aedwulf shook his head.

"I suppose they bowed to the inevitable and decided to conserve the rest of their strength for battle. And before you ask: Éothain and his riders destroyed the rest of the group that assaulted us. They left none alive. In fact, they returned shortly after you… They lost three horses though." He inhaled, and Éomer's gloomy look was reply enough. This foray cost them dearly, and it was clear to both men that the price had not even been fully paid yet. Aedwulf cleared his throat. "I told Éothain to sleep, too. Anlaf took over for him. I suppose he's just waking right now, as well. When first light comes, it will find us ready."

"Aye…" With a soundless sigh, Éomer straightened and rolled his shoulders. Gods, he felt stiff like one of the Púkelmen on the path to Dunharrow. How in Béma's name was he supposed to give battle in less than an hour? Which reminded him… A quick glance around confirmed to him that most of their riders were already in the process of preparing their horses for the expected melee. Bedrolls and other belongings were being packed and stored in their horse's saddlebags, before they could get lost in the fight, and once that was done, the men climbed into the saddles and began to put their mounts through a few exercises to warm their muscles.

Slowly feeling the effect of the Everlast taking hold, Éomer gave his captain an appreciative look and laid a hand upon the man's shoulder.

"Well done, Aedwulf. See that you make it back to your own position, then. Since everyone knows what do do, I suppose there is nothing left to say or do. See that you get some more rest. It will be over soon enough. Good hunting, Captain… and see that you duck when you're supposed to."

"And you, Marshal."

With a curt nod, the warrior turned and walked away. For a moment, Éomer's gaze followed him, then with a jolt, the son of Éomund turned towards their horses. His dark grey head buried in the juicy grass, Firefoot stood at the edge of their herd of war-horses, up to his knees dissolved in the thick grey mist. He looked almost like a ghost in these surroundings, and from out of nowhere, Éomer's thoughts turned toward Sleipnir, the ghost horse, as he approached his mount. A frown spread over his face at the thought of the mighty stallion of the Beyond, who was believed to carry those who had fallen in battle to the halls of their ancestors. He hoped none of his remaining warriors would see the Ghost Horse today.

"Good morning, Grey One!" he said instead, and smiled when Firefoot lifted his head, still munching on a mouthful of grass. From the depths of his mighty chest, a low wicker reached the warrior's ears and brought the hint of a smile to his lips as he reached out and buried his fingers in the silken fur. "Don't eat too much, or you won't be able to move. Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come, and I will need your service one more time."

He pulled the big head closer and pressed his face into the thick winter fur, enjoying the warmth upon his skin. The thought that both he and his mount could be dead in less than an hour was non-existent. It was something he was not allowed to think if he wanted to be effective in battle. Fear was a bad adviser. People made mistakes when they were driven by fear. Rigorously, he pushed it aside and climbed into the saddle to begin his own preparations for the fight.


Half an hour later, it could no longer be denied that daylight was on the way. The world lay under a swirling white blanket of mist, ready to be born again, and the birds on the edge of the Entwood had burst into song. It could have been a beautiful morning, yet instead, it would become a red dawn.

The Riders had broken camp, and there had been a lot of activity in the twilight, anxiously and helplessly followed by their waiting opponents. Steam rose from the bodies of the great war-horses as they moved ceaselessly around the siege ring, preparing for the effort that lay before them. Swords were sharpened and arrows collected from the bodies of the fallen orcs to replenish empty quivers, spears retrieved and armour rearranged that had been taken off during the night.

At last, Éomer felt that they were ready. Garulf had just returned from another round around the hillock, and brought him word from the other commanders that their preparations were completed, and that the éored was waiting for their Marshal's sign. A quick glance at the eastern sky revealed that the sun was just about to show its head above the distant hills.

With a curt nod at his scout, Éomund's son turned his prancing stallion towards the hillock and unhooked his silver horn. The clear sound rose over the battlefield, calling his brothers to arms… and was picked up by dozens more all around the siege ring. The orcs jumped to their feet… and the first beam of sunlight flooded the hill on which they stood and blinded them. It reflected on helmets and then on swords which were spontaneously held up to greet it, and chased away the gloomy thoughts of the night. Battle was upon them once more, and they were ready for it.

Coming to a halt at the foot of the hillock, Éomer suddenly heard a strong, clear voice burst out in song. A grim smile spread on his lips as he recognised it as Éothain's, and he joined into their ancient battle tune, which was quickly picked up by their entire éored, swept away on a huge wave of adrenaline:

"We ride out in the morning,

hard on our enemies' track.

We know that once we found them,

they'll never make it back.

Fens and plains and hills we cross,

our weapons hungry for their blood.

And when we were done we leave them lying,

their corpses trampled in the red mud.

We've made our vows, to protect what's ours,

To kill what's not, and destroy their lot.

For always and ever our duty will call,

to vanquish our foes and to protect all."

In the deafening silence that followed their song, Éomer lifted his arm and shouted out.


With a swoosh, the riders to his left and right unslung their bows and fitted their arrows to the string. For a few heartbeats, nothing happened. A last, deep breath… and then his arm fell.


With a sharp whisper, the deadly hail punched into the orcs. Agonised and enraged roars rose into the clear morning air. Several large shapes dropped to the ground. Only few arrows were returned. Again, Éomer lifted his arm.

"Ready! ... Shoot!"

More devastation rained down upon their enemies, cunningly aimed at points in their lighter armour that were not well protected. Dozens of the great orcs stumbled and fell to their knees, riddled with arrows. Mercilessly, Éomer gave the signal a third time, and then gripped his spear.

"Forth, Éorlingas!"

He kicked his heels into Firefoot's flanks, and the grey stallion jumped into action. The riders accelerated uphill like a wave on a storm tide; swallowing the ground beneath them, eating up the distance. Before them, still unable to see them in the low light of the rising sun, the remaining orcs lifted their crude swords in defence.

"Stand your ground!" a mighty voice rose over the din of their hoof beats. "Or I will personally kill you! Stand your ground!"

Closer! And closer still, almost upon them! So close now that Éomer could make out the reflection of the sun in the bulging, red-veined eyes before him. The stench of the enemy hit his nostrils. He tensed and drew back his arm, focussing on the Uruk directly in their path. The beast bared its fangs at him and roared, spittle showering from the gaping maw as it ran to meet them. With a wild answering yell and his full body weight behind the thrust, Éomer threw his spear, and it caught the creature in the pit of its throat and went halfway through. A black shower erupted from its jaws. Dropping the sword, the orc's hands went up to its pierced neck, and yet before it had a chance to drop, they were upon it. The dying beast was rammed to the ground and vanished beneath their horses. Only a moment later, Gúthwinё sparkled brightly in its master's hand, thirsty for blood.

Like a battering ram, the éored forced their way through the exhausted orcs; hacking, slashing and riding down everything in their way, an unstoppable force of nature, only halting once they reached the peak of the little hillock. There they turned around, joined by their brothers-in-arms who had fought their way up from the other side, and with combined strength, came upon the fleeing orcs once more, the thunder of their hooves drowning out all other sounds.

"Get the Whiteskin! Kill him!"

As the spearhead of their forces, Éomer suddenly found himself surrounded by Uruk-hai. Firefoot's assault had been too fast for the éored to follow, and cunningly, the beasts had closed the gap behind him and isolated the commander from his warriors. He cursed and threw the stallion around, having sensed motion out of the corner of his eye. Black claws clutched at him, grasped his boots and tried to pull him from the saddle. He slashed at them, severing a forearm here and a hand there, but now the orcs on the other side had reached him.

With a furious shriek, Firefoot reared, and his hooves smashed the face of the nearest foe in, sending him to the ground. Yet his forelegs had barely touched the soil again when he already rounded his back and kicked, almost unseating his rider.


He looked up, frantically searching for help, but there was only the writhing black mass around them, roaring, stinking, hell-bent on tearing them to pieces. A huge two-hander with spikes at its tip swung toward them, and only in the last moment, Éomer managed to deflect the blow that would have taken off his leg. Enraged, the beast bared its fangs at him and crouch as if to jump, but suddenly, with a shower of blackness, the tip of a spear burst from its chest.

"To the Marshal!"

It was Éothain's voice he heard, and Éothain's face which suddenly appeared before him. Lifting his sword hand in greeting, Éomer was ill-prepared for a sudden, violent tug from behind. His feet slipped from the stirrups, and even a quick grasp for the pommel of his saddle could not save him. He fell.


Years of practice and catlike instincts sent him into a controlled roll over his shoulder and landed him on his feet, striking out even as he rose. The mountain of orc before him roared in agony as he dropped like a stone, both of its legs severed just below the knees. Quickly ending the beast's pain with a stab to the eye, Éomer whirled around.


His stallion was fearsome to behold as he rose on his hind legs once again, only the whites showing in his eyes as he hammered his hooves at the nearest orcs and jumped forth with bared teeth, a predator in the shape of a horse. And yet he did not seem to hear his master's call.

"Éomer, quick!"

From out of nowhere, a gauntleted hand appeared in Éomer's vision. He grasped it and jumped, unthinking, pure instinct, to find himself in the saddle behind Éothain.


Scatha, his friend's bay gelding, burst into action and, with a mighty jump, propelled himself straight through the wall of orcs that separated them from the rest of their riders, closely followed by Firefoot, and the pursuing orcs were met with another hail of arrows from the Rohirrim.

"Damnation…" was all Éomer was able to utter as he fought for breath. "That was close."

"Too close…" Reaching, Éothain managed to grasp Firefoot's loosely hanging reins, and quickly, his commander and friend slipped over into the empty saddle. Anxiously, Éomer's eyes travelled over the grey frame, looking for injuries, but finding only smears of black orc blood upon his hide.

"Next time we attack, please leave us the chance to join you, all right? One could think your horse has a personal feud with this particular band of orcs."

Still breathing hard, Éomer nodded

"Thanks, Éothain. I owe you."

"Ah well…" his friend snorted, already turning away to get an overview over the battle. "Regard it as payment for last month. We should be even now." He narrowed his eyes. "It seems to me that most of the orcs are destroyed, but what's this over there?" He pointed ahead.

Following his gaze, Éomer beheld a throng of orcs and riders in close combat. There were about a dozen of the dark beasts, who seemed to use an unusual strategy to fight their way towards the forest, back-to-back, some of them even equipped with bows they had claimed. Even as they looked, three of the Uruks made a sally and jumped at a grey horse with a distinct two-coloured mane.

"No!" Éomer hissed and spurred Firefoot towards the fight, Éothain close behind him. Right before their eyes, the horse was surrounded and its rider torn from the saddle while it still fought to free itself. An icy chill raced down his spine at the thought of how close he had come himself to falling prey to this tactic. Without stopping, Éomer exchanged his sword for a spear, ripping it from the body of a fallen orc as they thundered ahead. In the meantime, other riders had noticed their comrades' predicament and turned, but they were too far away to help.

One of Garulf's attackers roared in pain as Éothain's precisely aimed arrow punched into its shoulder, and for a moment, all heads turned toward the two approaching Rohirrim. Using the diversion, the grey stallion reared and catapulted itself through a narrow gap, shrieking in terror. Its rider wasn't as lucky. Even as they came within range, the scout disappeared in the middle of the enraged orcs.

With a cry of pure rage, Éomer threw the spear and sunk the entire metal head into the back of the nearest beast.

"Hey!" a roar greeted them. "Hey, Whiteskins! Look here!"

It was a mountain of an orc, a Uruk of a size they had not met before, clad in gruesome amour of skin and bones that was already soaked with black and red blood alike. The group's commander, without a doubt, and before him in the mud, the sharp claws sunk into the skin of his head, Garulf knelt, desperately, uselessly trying to escape the terrible hold. Blood streamed down his face in frightening amounts. Éomer swore and reached over his back. No arrow left! Next to him, Éothain swore at the same revelation.

"Look here, Whiteskins!" the chieftain shouted with a horribly amused laugh. "This is what would happen to all of you if you fought fair!"

Even as Éomer kicked his heels into Firefoot's flanks, his blade again in his hand, he knew that their attack came too late. Right before them, the Uruk's claws clenched as he pulled Garulf to his feet with a violent tug that almost ripped the skin from the warrior's scalp, a long, black knife in his other hand…

In a desperate impulse, Éomer threw his sword. In a silvery arc, Gúthwinё sailed towards the offender. But it was not the way its owner had ever used it before, and so it was only the hilt that struck the great orc in the chest and glanced off. With a guttural roar, the beast sank its knife into Garulf's neck, opening a yawning red gap just beneath his chin. The scout's knees buckled, but before he could fall, he was thrown right into his marshal's path.

No time to evade. For a heartbeat, Éomer saw his rider's bloodied face through Firefoot's ears – the next, he was catapulted into the air as his stallion leapt over the dying warrior. They landed in the midst of the remaining orcs… and he was weaponless, Éomer realised with a jolt! For a moment, he could only stare as the beasts advanced… and then a sharp sound reached his ears, and his attackers dropped to the ground, each pierced by at least a dozen arrows. Except for their commander…

The great orc still stood, although the shafts of two arrows stuck out from his arm and leg.

"Halt!" Éomer shouted over the din of the advancing éored, and lifted his hand. "Do not shoot! He is mine!" His eyes tore into those of his adversary, murder written on his face as he turned Firefoot around in a tight circle.

"Marshal!" Hilt first, Éothain offered him his sword even as the rest of their riders closed the circle around them. He knew better than to argue with his friend now.

Wordlessly, Éomer accepted his blade, while beneath him, Firefoot stomped his hooves threateningly into the ground. He lifted his chin in challenge.

"You gonna fight me from the back of that beast, horse-boy?" The Uruk spat. "Just what I expected. You know that I would tear you limb from limb in a fair fight!"

"A fair fight?" Éomer's eyes blazed, thoroughly ignoring Éothain's whispered "Éomer, don't!", or probably not even hearing him. He was in a tunnel, and on the other end, there was only Garulf's murderer. No Éothain, no riders, no one. "You want a fair fight? I'll give you a fair fight!" And with those words, he slipped from the saddle.

He did not hear the dismayed murmurs of his riders, had no eyes or ears for anything but the dark shape before him as he approached his opponent with large, determined steps. The blood pulsed through his veins; muscles vibrated with tension as rage and battle-fever united in his body. Everything became clearer, sharper. Every little detail stood out in stark contrast. The orc's blood-soaked armour. The arrow-shafts in its flesh, moving as the beast drew back its spiked broadsword. The cruel, horribly amused glint in its bloodshot eyes.

Two paces before his adversary, Éomer came to a stop. In challenge, he extended his arms, then slowly dropped into a crouch.

"Well, come on, abortion!"

The crude blade swung toward him before he had even finished, its arc unexpectedly low. At the last moment, Éomer blocked the blow which would have otherwise cut off his legs, and used its energy to answer with a quick swipe that neatly shaved off his opponent's left ear. The orc bellowed in rage.

A grim smile tugged at Éomer's lips. The beast was mean and strong, but it was slow.

"You want to tear me to pieces? Here I am! Come on, warg-trap, or are you a coward?"

With a furious roar, the orc leapt at him, black wetness glistening on its thick neck, the broadsword scything through the air in a deadly half-circle and striking sparks as it clashed against Éothain's sword – and knocked it from Éomer's grasp.

He did not hear the dismayed cries around him. As the sword swung toward him once more, Éomer dropped to the ground and rolled. Something sparkled in the grass before him, a glint of sunlight on metal. Gúthwinё! His fingers closing around the hilt, he finished his move and jumped to his feet. A quick thrust opened a long gash across the orc's back before it could turn. The beast grunted and stumbled.

'He's lost a lot of blood,' Éomer realised with satisfaction. 'He's getting weaker. It's all about good footwork now.'

"I'm here!" he taunted, and danced away before his opponent could turn around, punishing him again with a stab into the muscular thigh. "Come and get me!"

Red eyes regarded him with infernal bloodlust as the orc turned toward him, limping now, its chest pumping like a pair of bellows.

"Stand… still!"

Their eyes met, and in them, Éomer could see everything he could ever have wanted. The orc was finished. Time to end it. He straightened… and lowered his sword.

"All right… Come!"

With a breathless roar, the beast jumped at him. He saw it all very clearly as he stood there, unmoving, Gúthwinё hanging beside his legs as he goaded the orc into a last, desperate attack. The cold glint of the black metal upon the descending broadsword, the strike powerful enough to split him down the middle like firewood. At the last possible moment, he moved.

A flicker of his wrist, then a sharp upwards motion with both hands leading the blade, every ounce of strength in his body incorporated in his strike, a furious cry leaving his lungs. The steel cut through bone as if it were butter, and the broadsword tumbled to the ground behind him, the hands which had led it still clenched around the hilt.

For a moment, they stood before each other, eye-to-eye. Close enough to touch. The orc's maw opened wide in a blood-curdling roar, impressive fangs glistening with saliva. Easiest thing in the world to stick his sword into the gaping hole and be done with it. Yet it was not what the son of Éomund wanted.

Dropping into a crouch, he lashed out again, and this time, all its iron determination could not keep his adversary on its feet, for they had been severed from its body. On bleeding stumps, it toppled backward. One step, two… and then the great body crashed to the ground with an agonized groan.


Chapter 9: Razor's Edge

Author's Notes:

If any of you thought that I would be done with the tension after last chapter's battle, think again... *muahahaha*

Seriously, I'm only getting warmed up for the next ton of angst... Stay tuned, and if you feel so inclined, kindly drop me a note to let me know whether you're enjoying this feast of darkness!


The orc had barely landed on its back when Éomer shoved his sword under its chin, eyes blazing with intensity as he placed his boot on his adversary's chest.

"What was your mission, filth? Tell me and you shall die quickly. If not, I promise you that we will find ways of making it even harder for you, and we will drag out your death until you will beg us for it."

The red-veined eyes met him. Impossibly, the beast was still laughing, although its ugly features were contorted into a grimace of pain. It coughed a mouthful of thick black blood onto Éomer's boot. The stench was nearly enough to make him retch.

"So desperate, horse-boy, aren't you? We Uruk-hai do not betray our masters. Rot in hell!"

"Very well…"

With a quick glance, Éomer found what he had been looking for. With three quick steps, he reached the orc he had speared through the back and wrenched the weapon from its flesh. It was still moving weakly, but he hardly noticed as he turned around. Another hard look found the Uruk-chieftain.

"Last chance, abortion!"

"You cannot scare me, horse-boy! Uruk-hai are cut from a different cloth than ordinary orcs… or filthy Whiteskins! I'll rather bleed out!"

Éomer nodded.

"Your choice."

He tensed… and rammed the spear through the orc's lower abdomen, nailing it to the ground. A breathless, hoarse groan rewarded him as he turned towards his waiting riders.

"Tolgor, cauterise his wounds! I will not allow him to bleed to death. And station a guard at his side." His attention shifted back to the agonized creature at his feet. "You have something to say to us, tell it to my men. Until then, you will find that the path to oblivion can be a very rocky one…"

His heartbeat slowly returning to normal as he ran a hand through his tangled mane, Éomer turned his back on the mortally wounded beast. In the grass before him, Éothain's sword glinted in the sun, and he stooped to retrieve it, only briefly pausing to wipe the black blood from the blade before he handed it back to its owner in exchange for Firefoot's reins.

"Thanks, Éothain."

His captain shook his head with mild amazement.

"Béma, Éomer… I can only hope I'll never find myself on your bad side." After a long glance over the battlefield, his attention returned to his commander. "What now?"

Éomer followed his gaze, quite aware of his riders' undivided attention. The most gruesome part of warfare lay still before them… yet at the same time, they could hardly afford the time it would take to cleanse the battlefield.

"One half of our éored should make for the Entwash right now. This whole unfortunate business took way too much time, and we must return to Edoras as quickly as possible. Anlaf, Aedwulf… you will lead your men to the bridge. You will rest there and wait for us, and sleep. Éothain and I will follow you once we're done here."

His captains nodded.

"What about our fallen? Will we have to leave them here?"

Éomer inhaled, and once again, his gaze swept the hillock behind them. It was littered with orc corpses… and yet he feared that that they would also find more of their riders between them in addition to the ones their nightly battle had already claimed. He furrowed his brow.

"I'm afraid we will indeed have to… We will give them as decent a burial as possible, though. As for our fallen horses, we will have to burn them. I'm sure none of you wants to leave his mount for the scavengers to find. All who want to help, get to work now. I need about sixty men. All others, make for the Entwash, now."



Early daylight filtered through the Golden Hall's windows. Huddled into a thick woollen blanket in her armchair, Éowyn welcomed it with dread. After the earlier clash with the Worm and his henchman, she feared that the coming day would bring her nothing but new torment. Théodred's death would be revealed to the city's population, and if there was one thing she could count on, Éomund's daughter knew that Gríma Wormtongue would give it his best to lay the blame entirely on her brother. The people had loved Théodred dearly; he had been the main source of their hope… and there was no telling how they would welcome someone, who was said to be responsible for his passing.

All the more reason to warn Éomer. A twinge of pain raced through her stomach as Éowyn's eyes wandered over to the fireplace. She could still hardly believe that Gamling had forced her to burn the parchment. They had grown up right beneath his nose! He had seen Théodred and Éomer together countless times! How could the old warrior now doubt her brother? How could he actually believe that it had been Éomer's intention to have his cousin killed? And if even he believed it… how should the people of Edoras think any different? Slowly but surely, the noose was tightening around her brother's neck.

What was there still left to do for her? After the nightly episode, Éowyn was certain that they would watch any of her activities with eagle eyes. She could not see how she was supposed to smuggle a letter out under these circumstances, much less as there would be hardly anyone left willing to risk his neck to bring Èomer her warning after the revelations of the coming day.

Riding out herself… it felt tempting to leave this snake pit, and yet the daughter of Éomund was realistic enough to understand that she would, in all likelihood, not return. She was no tracker, but even if, by some wonder, she would make it to the Entwood, there was a strong possibility not only to miss her brother's éored along the way… and she could not hope to ride the whole distance without having to sleep. By herself and with no guard, it surely sounded only like a very good opportunity to rid Gríma Wormtongue of another member of the opposition.

No. As much as Éowyn loathed the insight, her path had to be a different one. She hated it, too, but it was the only chance… and she had to walk it now. With a deep breath, she came to her feet. The blanket she tossed upon the bed she had not used this past night, and instead grasped her brush. Yet when she came to a halt in front of the mirror, her reflection gave her pause. Sorrowful, blue-grey eyes stared at her out of a pale face. They were still puffed up from all the weeping, and dark circles beneath them would tell anyone who looked at her clearly about her disposition. She could not leave her chambers looking like this. She needed 'the Mask' again, more than ever.

Quickly finishing with her hair, Éowyn picked a fresh washing cloth from her chest of dressers and soaked it in the jug with cold water that still stood on her table. She pressed it onto her eyes, relishing the soothing effect. For a moment, she even succeeded in thinking of nothing. Once more soaking the cloth when it had warmed too much to be effective, she stood a little longer in the twilight of her chambers, inwardly steeling herself for the task at hand. It was a cruel game she was about to play, yet it was necessary. She needed to remind her uncle of her vow, to make it clear to him how serious she was about her threat…

With a deep breath, Éowyn opened her eyes again. The young woman in the mirror stared back at her with an unreadable expression. That was better. She looked still tired, but by now, determination had replaced desperation, and the daughter of Éomund understood that her threat, which had, at first, only been made to protect her brother, had become heartfelt conviction. She did not want to live if Gríma succeeded. It was clear to her what would happen once there was no one left whom the Counsellor feared. She would not become the plaything of this human monster… and now she would see to it that his plans were thwarted.


It was still early when Éowyn slipped out of her chambers, but around the tables at the hearth fire, a few members of the Royal Household could already be seen breaking their fast. She granted them a curt nod in greeting and walked over to the other side, where she could make out the shadow of the guard beside the door to her uncle's rooms. As she approached, she realised to her surprise that it was Gamling. Haltingly, she advanced further.

"Good morning, Captain… I must admit that I did not expect to see you guarding the King's door… although it puts my mind more at peace than having the Counsellor's own men standing here."

The older warrior returned her greeting, a haunted look in his deep-lying eyes.

"Good morning, my lady. I could not sleep after what was disclosed last night, so I relieved Folcard." He inhaled. "I can still not believe it."

"Neither can I, Lord Gamling. It is…" Searching for the right words and coming up empty, Éowyn could only shake her head. "It is still too fresh." She nodded towards the door. "May I see my uncle, please?" 'Is he still alone?' Her eyes asked silently.

"He might not be up yet… and for as long as I have been standing here, no one entered."

Éowyn nodded, slightly relieved. She did not yet feel ready to deal with the Worm after the past horrible night.

"I would like to see whether he needs help. After the sleeping draught he took last night, I expect him to be a little drowsy. It might be best if he sees a family member first when he wakes. Please, Lord Gamling…"

The Captain of the Royal Guard inhaled. All his instincts told him that it was the right thing to do, no matter what the king's counsellor had said. At last, he nodded… and opened the door for Éowyn, himself.

"Of course, my lady… Please, let me know if you or the king should need something."

Éowyn gifted him with the faintest of smiles as she passed him.

"I will. Thank you, Gamling."

Almost on the tips of her toes, she entered the royal chambers. Lying on the eastern side of the Golden Hall, daylight had already thoroughly spread in the main room, and yet everything was still silent. The fire in the hearth had already been tended and flickered merrily, spreading its warmth. Éowyn felt slightly dizzy, barely aware of the fact that she was holding her breath.

Soundlessly, she moved over to the door to the bedchambers. Softly, she rapped her knuckles against the wood. No reply. She knocked again, a little louder. Waited.

"Uncle? May I come in?" Silence answered her. A chill she knew only too well settled in her stomach again. He could not still be sleeping, could he? Even after having taken the draught… She knocked harder. "Uncle?" When again no answer rewarded her, Éowyn depressed the handle.

The twilight in the bedroom was still thick; the drawn curtains blocked the morning light and the stuffy air almost choked her.

"Uncle? It is I, Éowyn." She was whispering now, an indistinct fear rising in the back of her mind. Théoden had never been a sound sleeper, so how could he still not hear her? On tiptoes, she stepped closer. The shape beneath the bedspread did not move. "Uncle?"

"Do not disturb the king's rest!" a whispered hiss suddenly reached her ears, almost causing her to scream. From the arm chair close to Théoden's four-poster, a dark shape rose. "What do you think you're doing?"

Too shocked to answer, Éowyn could only stare back as her adversary approached.

'What is he doing here? Has he been sitting here the whole night? Doing… what exactly?'

His eyes narrowed to slits, Wormtongue pointed wordlessly at the door to Théoden's main chambers. Her heart hammering in her chest, Éowyn followed him outside after a quick glance back at her unmoving uncle; the shock already starting to turn into righteous rage. Gríma had barely closed the door when she turned around and hissed back in a barely subdued voice:

"What do you mean, Counsellor? I do not understand your question! My uncle suffered a severe blow yesterday, and he was already frail before that. He is normally an early riser. As his only available family member, I am concerned. May I ask what you were doing in there? You have no business in the king's bedchamber, Lord Gríma! And the Captain of the Royal Guard did not see you enter, which means you must have been in here all night!"

"It is not your exclusive right to worry about our ruler's health, my lady!" Gríma returned her furious look with his usual, unreadable mask. "I understand perhaps better than you how precarious your uncle's condition is. At least I did not try to wake him when he needs his rest more urgently than ever!"

A terrible thought entered Éowyn's mind… and found the way to her tongue before she could stop it.

"Perhaps you only wanted to check how well the poison you're giving my uncle is working!" She could see him flinch, or at least, she imagined that he had. "Did you, Lord Gríma? Ever since you started giving Théoden-King your so-called 'medicine', his health has deteriorated, and it has been going ever faster these days! I have witnessed it myself many times: my uncle is still responsive until you give him your potion! It turns him into a submissive puppet! And perhaps that is the very thing that you want, to turn him against Éomer!" She stabbed her finger at him, no longer able hold down her voice nor hold back her anger. Gods, it had been so clear all this time!

Wormtongue's eyes narrowed even further in furious disbelieve, and the cold morning light sparkled in his eyes like thin, dangerous ice.

"If I didn't give your uncle my 'poison', my lady," he sneered, now likewise raising his voice, "- he would lie in his bed all day, screaming in torment! The illness of his joints is something that will not pass, and which cannot be overcome! It can only be dulled! Of course such medicine also has an effect on a person's mind! If you have no medical knowledge yourself, Lady Éowyn, may I suggest with all due emphasis that you leave the treatment of your uncle to those who do?"

"I do not believe you, Counsellor!" Instinctively, Éowyn straightened and lifted her chin. Sudden conviction flooded her as she squared her shoulders. "And as member of the Royal Family, I demand that you will leave the treatment of the king to our healer! From this moment on, you will neither touch my uncle again nor administer him any more dubious liquids! You will stay away, or it is you who will suddenly find himself in the dungeon! I mean it, Lord Gríma!"

For the longest moment, the pale eyes before her regarded her with obvious calculation. Then a nasty sneer appeared on the counsellor's lips.

"It seems to me that you vastly overestimate your authority, my lady. You have no power to order such a thing. I have it in writing that your uncle grants me authority to speak in his stead in the case that he is indisposed. I am, in fact, his proxy. And as such, I will not listen to orders given to me by subordinates."

"Sub…" The word punched the breath from Éowyn's lungs. "What you are, as far as I'm concerned, is our servant, Lord Gríma! You are the servant of the Royal Family-"

"I am the servant of the king, Lady Éowyn! The king!"

"- of which I am next in line with my cousin dead and my brother gone! And I will only repeat it once: you will leave these chambers immediately, and you will not return, or I will have the Royal Guard remove you! Béma is my witness, I mean it!"

He made an angry step toward her.

"You cannot-"

"I can and I will! Lord Gamling!" Although her heart was beating in her throat, Éowyn did not yield. From behind, the sound of the opening door reached her ears. It sounded like music.

"My lady?" The warrior's voice sounded hesitant. "You were calling for me?"

"Aye, I was, Captain." Her eyes never leaving her adversary's face, which contorted into a furious grimace, Éowyn raised her voice. "Will you please escort Lord Gríma out of my uncle's chambers and see to it that he stays out? Please feel free to summon the rest of the Royal Guard should he not be willing to leave by himself." She could virtually hear the old man's confusion even through the following silence.

Before her, Wormtongue shook his head.

"You have no idea what trouble you are getting yourself into, my lady. Your uncle will be furious with you once he wakes and finds what you have done!"

Now she felt confident enough to grant her opponent a nasty smile.

"Well, why don't we ask him? Our shouting should surely have awoken him by now, if your poison did not kill him! Don't you think?" And with these words, she re-entered the bedchambers, gaze firmly directed at the hump beneath the blanket. The still unmoving hump! By all rights, her uncle should have been sitting in his bed by now.

"Lady Éowyn, I do not know…" Gamling's voice reached her from the connecting door, but she did not hear what the older warrior said, for now she had reached the bed and laid a gentle hand onto the spot where she believed her uncle's shoulder to be. She gave him the gentlest of shakes.

"Uncle? Uncle, it is I, Éowyn…" No response rewarded her, and sudden dread flooded her with almost painful intensity. No, it could not be! "The curtains, Lord Gamling!" she shouted anxiously. "Quick, open the curtains! I need light!"

A moment later, the pale morning light illuminated the room, but it did not make things less horrifying, for now she could see that her uncle's eyes were open… and staring into the void.

'No, no, no, no…!'

She dropped to her knees beside the bed.

"Uncle? Uncle, can you hear me?" She laid a trembling hand against his neck. His skin was warm… and there was a pulse against her fingers. It was steady, but terribly slow. For a moment, Éowyn did not know whether to be relieved or even more worried.

"My lady, is he…"

"He is alive, Lord Gamling. Alive… but unresponsive." She looked up, and now cold fury burned in her eyes as her gaze found the Worm by the door. With a deep voice that vibrated with barely suppressed rage, she asked: "What have you given him, Counsellor? You say it was a sleeping draught. I say a sleeping draught would not leave my uncle lying here like a corpse, unable to move or to respond! You poisoned him!"

She rose to her feet and from out of the corner of her eyes, noticed that, on the other side of the bed, Gamling had unsheathed his sword and approached the waiting man with firm steps.

"It was a sleeping draught!" Gríma insisted. "Of course, I made it rather strong! Your uncle lost his son last night! Such a heavy blow has to have an effect on the king, even more so as his health has been frail for months!" He stared the guard full in the face and lowered his voice. "You better watch what you're doing with that blade, Lord Gamling. Raise it against me and the king will have your head when he wakes!"

"I will chance it," Gamling replied with a firm voice that was music to Éowyn's ears. "For now, I want you out of these chambers, Counsellor Gríma. I will escort you out and bring you to your own rooms, where you will remain until summoned. I will leave a guard in front of your door. Should you try to resist, or flee, you will find that we also have other accommodation we can allot you."

For a moment, Wormtongue could only stare back. Never before had he seen the old warrior like this. With Théoden-King firmly under his sway, the Royal Guard had been behaving toward him like toothless, docile dogs. But he was not yet at the end of his tether, not by a long shot. He narrowed his eyes.

"Very well, Captain," he said, forcing himself to calm down. "Do what you think you must. I will not resist. But I certainly do not envy you the trouble you will find yourself in once Théoden-King hears of this."

"If he wakes!"

"Oh, he will wake, I can guarantee you that. And by then you will have a lot to explain, both you and the Lady Éowyn. I doubt that your ruler will be very amused to see what happens to his orders once he is indisposed." He stared at Éowyn, and a cruel smirk contorted his mouth. "Perhaps it is not only your brother who is making his bid for power, my lady. Perhaps, the conspiracy has already spread much further than even I imagined…"


Éowyn did not know whether it was rage or worry that made her tremble; all she knew was that if she'd have to deal with the Worm even for a minute longer, things would turn really ugly and irreversible.

"Kindly bring the Counsellor to his rooms now, Captain, and see that he stays there. When this is done, send for Yalanda at once. I will stay here, by my uncle's side. Hurry!"


Author's Notes:

I hope you are ready for more plotting by our evil counsellor, and just want to use this opportunity to thank Thanwen, CarawynO, Rossui, Silverswath, Rocheryn and mystarlight for faithfully reviewing. This is for you!

Chapter 10: Evil Schemes


The swell of the grass slopes seemed limitless. To Éomer's dazed mind, it appeared as if they were caught in a strange spell, doomed to travel the same rolling hills again and again and follow the same broad tracks the vanguard of their éored had left in the soil. Even the sky was overcast and did not reveal the sun, adding to his disorientation. Not for the life of him could he have told what progress they had already made on their way back to Edoras, since they had left the scene of the battle shortly after midday. Somehow, more subconsciously than anything else, the son of Éomund still managed to stay in the saddle, but he felt that the moment when all his iron would not suffice to keep him on his horse was approaching fast… and if he was feeling this way, the riders of his éored could certainly not be feeling much different.

Their mounts, too, needed a rest. He could tell that easily from the way Firefoot's gallop shook him thoroughly whenever the stallion's hooves touched the ground. The Half-Meara was one of their hardiest horses and possessed of legendary stamina, but even in Éomer's half-conscious state, the son of Éomund could tell that the big Grey needed all his willpower just to move on, although they were already travelling at a much slower speed than they had on the way to the Entwood. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice was still screaming at him and reminding him of the urgency of their return to Edoras, and then on to the Fords, but Éomer felt no longer capable of following its unrealistic demands. They were all made of flesh and blood and as such, bound to its limitations, not some ghastly ghouls brought into existence by sorcery. The moment was near when they would have to pay the price for all what they had done these past two and a half days.

For a few heartbeats, Éomer's eyelids closed… and his chin sunk onto his chest. 'So tired…' His head sunk lower. He began to slide, imperceptibly at first. 'Let me sleep…' The body tension seeped from his muscles. 'I'm slipping...' – 'I don't care. Let me sleep.' A hard jolt rattled him, and with supreme effort, he opened his eyes… and righted himself in the saddle with more effort than it should have cost him.

"We must halt," Éothain's voice reached his ears through a low, yet persistent drone, muffled to the point where he could barely understand his friend. "Most of our horses are close to collapsing… and I'm only waiting for someone to fall from the saddle. We cannot go on like this, Éomer. It is only a question of time until there will be an ugly accident."

"We can only stop once we've reached the others," Éomer objected. "There are none among us who could stand guard in their condition. With a little luck, the others have been able to sleep in the meantime. They can't be too far ahead anymore."

Éothain's eyebrows twitched. He grimaced.

"You've been saying that for a while now."

"Which means that we must be even closer by now."

Éothain's brow furrowed, but there were no further words of protest. Which was well with Éomer. With a deep breath, he straightened in the saddle and looked back. Silently, he agreed with his friend, but there was simply no way they could just stop and sleep out here in the middle of nowhere. Before them, the tracks lead ever down the slope, and yet slowly but surely, it appeared to him that the terrain was at last beginning to level out. They had almost reached the plains. From here on, it would take them perhaps another two or three hours to reach the bridge, where – hopefully – the rest of their riders were awaiting their arrival. Three hours? It sounded impossible.

Although he knew that there was no more Everlast left in his water skin, Éomer shook the vessel tentatively. In the aftermath of the battle, they had thrown together everything his riders had had left, and distributed the brew evenly, but it had been much thinner than the one they had drunk before, and far less effective. Still, it had enabled them to perform the grisliest of tasks in the wake of the fight – searching the battlefield for their wounded and fallen, and separating them from the dead orcs. It had turned out that they had lost fifteen men, and Éomer's heart had ached at the sight of them, lying lined up on the ground at the eaves of the forest while their brothers-in-arms were digging their burial mount. They had also lost twelve of their precious horses, even having had to put several of them out of their misery before burning them, so that nothing was left for the scavengers which would inevitably find this place of mass death once they were gone.

The face of one of their youngest riders, Éoleth, appeared before Éomer's inner eye, tear-streaked at the horrible task of having to release his trusted mount of many years from the torment of a horribly broken hind leg. Éomer had been in the young man's shoes once, and knew that nothing he could say or do would lessen his rider's anguish. And as if that had not been bad enough, they had also found Grimdan on the slope, a young man of only twenty-four summers, who had cradled his mortally wounded twin brother Grímmund in his arms, his powerful, mailed frame shaking with gut-wrenching, soul-shattering sobs. Aye, they had paid the price for the destruction of the orcs, and once again, Éomer felt conviction that he would never grow accustomed to the aftermath of battle…

'You must not feel responsible for their death,' Théodred had advised him once after Éomer had received his own command. Together, they had fought many battles and won most of them, but from time to time, the price for victory had been high. So, after the first lossy fight, the Prince had taken his shaken cousin aside for a personal conversation.

'Of course one should always scrutinize one's battle strategy after a fight, but let's face it, Cousin: we are at war. A war will always cost the lives of those fighting it. Sometimes it will ask a high price for victory, while another time, you might get away completely unscathed. Such is the reality of it. For the last five hundred years, the marshals of the Mark have had to live with it, and before that, their ancestors. You cannot always bring everyone home. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you will lose men, or horses, or both, and it hurts like a pike through the gut. Trust me, I know. I've been there, myself. It makes you question yourself, whether there was not something more you could have done, or done differently. And it is all right to review your strategy from that angle. But once you've done that, the torment must end. You've got to leave it behind you, and store away whatever lessons you learned for the future. An éored under a commander who constantly questions himself and tears himself apart over things he couldn't change is bound for doom. Learn your lessons, so that next time, the outcome may be different. You are giving your best, Éomer, just like everyone else. They all know that. Sometimes, our efforts will suffice in bringing everyone home, other times, they won't. Every member of the Armed Forces understands that their service to their land can cost their lives, and they are prepared to give it. They do this of their own, free will, to protect their home and families, just like you do. Learn your lessons, Cousin… and if you want to blame someone, blame the enemy. That may be the best advice I can give you.'

Aye, it had been good advice, sound advice, and it had helped him in the performance of his duties for many years… and yet, after all this time, the pain and the grief of loss still occasionally managed to penetrate his defences. Likewise, Éomer knew that he would never get used to the stench of burning flesh, even if Béma allowed him to serve until old age.

Following their custom, they had dragged the slaughtered orcs from the battlefield and piled them in a great heap in a close-by clearing, not wanting to leave the corpses to rot and potentially poison the waters of the nearby river. From time to time, he had gone to check on their chieftain, but as expected, the great orc had been determined to take its secrets into the grave. So when at last the fire had blazed and begun to consume its brethren, and his éored had been ready to leave, Éomer had walked over one last time. Surprisingly enough, the beast had still been alive despite its horrible wounds, yet incapable of doing anything more than stare at him, the gaze in the red-veined eyes distant and telling Éomer that the creature's death was imminent.

Reluctant to leave the orc while it was still alive, he had at last killed it… and – following an impulse – impaled its big, ugly head upon a spear as a message for any of its kind who dared to travel this part of the Riddermark and think it unprotected.

The stench of the burning orc flesh was still in his nostrils now, gagging him. It was in his hair, in his garments, and nothing short of jumping into the Entwash's icy floods would rid them of it… but they had neither the time nor any spare clothes, so unfortunately, they would have to bear the ghastly stench until they were home. It was not a prospect Éomer was looking forward to, and still there was probably worse waiting for him in Edoras.

'Home'… it was such a wonderful word. 'Home' was where one's loved ones were waiting for one's return with glad hearts… 'Home' meant safety, and protection, and comfort. In their case, however, 'home' was where the Worm was, in all likelihood already arranging his weapons to tear them to pieces… especially him. He had ridden straight into the Counsellor's trap, knowing full well what would await him when they returned. And still, if given the choice to alter his decision, Éomer felt with every fibre of his body that it had been the right thing to do. .. and that he would give the order again in a flash, no matter of the personal cost.

Pushing the thought into the back of his mind with all that was left of his considerable willpower, Éomer settled back into the stupor of the ride…



Gríma Wormtongue sat in the confinement of his own chambers, in the armchair by the window. It was not out of his own volition, but he felt calm. Confident. Assured that he had thought of everything, and that his detention would be temporary at best. His adversaries had acted impulsively, obeying their emotions and not rationality, as was the usual way of the people of the Mark. A smirk tugged at the corners of his mouth. If they had any idea how easily their hot-headedness could be used against them…

Èomer, for example. There was no question that the young man was a formidable warrior, possessed of great stamina, strength and skill of weapons. An opponent one would rightly fear on the battlefield. At the same time, the Third Marshal also demonstrated remarkable shrewdness, paired with an almost uncanny ability to see through people… and their lies. He had certainly seen right through him the first time they had met, at which time Éomer had only been a boy, compelling Gríma's reluctant respect.

They had disliked each other from the very start, and Éomer had never lost an opportunity to voice his concerns regarding his uncle's counsellor to anyone who cared to listen. Which had been fine by Gríma, for it had worked against his opponent for many years. All knew about the Marshal's disposition toward him by now, and so whenever Éomer had returned to Meduseld with valid concerns these past months, none had taken his findings serious… not even when proof for the treason of Isengard had almost hardened to fact.

Subtly and patiently, Gríma had managed to turn the tables by exploiting the young man's misgivings. With the help of his potions and secret whisperings in the night, he had finally achieved what he had set out to do years ago: Théoden-King no longer listened to his nephew. On the contrary… For all these past months, the old man had proceeded to expressing increasing irritation at each of the Marshal's claims, thus finally rewarding Gríma with the greatest satisfaction of them all: it was obvious by now to all members of the Royal Household that their ruler distrusted his sister-son. A most helpful development for his purposes.

The Prince, on the other hand, had been of a different calibre. As much as Wormtongue had tried over the years to estrange the two cousins from one another, Théodred had refused to buy his increasingly desperate claims. Even when Éomer had fallen out of favour with his father, the King's son had remained steadfast in his support, and could not be swayed to believe otherwise. It had then come to Gríma's ears that the two warriors had proceeded to ignoring Théoden's orders in the field, thereby thwarting each and every of his carefully orchestrated attempts to weaken the Armed Forces with the help of his true master's army. This could not be allowed.

It had taken him many months to work out this plan, which would – hopefully – rid him of the two greatest obstacles to the fulfilment of his mission in one sweep. In careful harmonization with Saruman, Wormtongue had planned the perfect ambush to remove the Prince from the equation… and seen to it that the blame was laid entirely onto his cousin's doorstep. With the distribution of rumours of increased orc activity in the vicinity of Aldburg shortly before Théodred's summons were expected, he had left Éomer no chance, no matter which path of action the Third Marshal chose.

Had he ignored the orc threat to his home to follow his cousin's orders, Gríma would have commanded them to attack Aldburg and laid the resulting casualties at Éomer's feet. As it was, the rumours had delayed the Third Marshal's departure to the point where he could never have reached the Fords in time to be of help to his cousin, and Gríma had immediately proceeded to having his spies downplay the threat to the people of Aldburg once their protector had actually engaged in the wild goose chase. That was all well, but Gríma planned to use Éomer's delay even more effectively by falsifying Erkenbrand's report. He had altered the date of the attack in a way that made it still seem possible that his éored could have arrived in time to make a difference to the outcome of the battle, had they not chosen to ride north instead of west.

His spies had already informed him that they had succeeded in locating Erkenbrand's messenger on the long road from Westfold. They had followed the man to a guesthouse… and in the night, while he had been sleeping, replaced the Marshal's letter with the one Gríma had drafted in the handwriting of the Lord of the western part of the Mark, complete with the man's original dragon-sigil.

No one would ever know that this particular piece of the puzzle was as false as a three-legged chicken. Saruman's plans for the destruction of the Mark had already progressed to the point where he was almost ready to deploy his army, and Erkenbrand and every man in Westfold would be dead long before he could ever be confronted with the contents of the letter. No, no one would ever know…

… except, perhaps, for Éowyn. Apart from the King, whose mind was so dazed by now that he probably didn't even know which year it was, much less what day, only his niece had been present when he had revealed the contents of Erkenbrand's advance notice with the real date of the attack. Of course, he had already rewritten that particular note and burned the other, but he could not entirely eliminate the possibility that the daughter of Éomund remembered the original date. It had been a minor lapse on his part, but it did not matter. No one would listen to her while written 'proof 'existed that she just remembered things falsely.

No, the hangman's noose was irrevocably waiting for her brother, and Wormtongue could hardly await to finally lay it around Éomer's neck with the King's blessings. Everything had worked out beautifully… Satisfied with his work, Gríma leaned back. Yet for all his successes, there was still something in the back of his mind, pestering him. He grimaced.

It was a nuisance that she had found him in her uncle's chambers after his work for the night had been done, and although he did not doubt that his confinement would end soon enough, Gríma felt angry with himself for letting himself be caught. At least for a short time, Marshal Éomund's daughter had succeeded in turning the Royal Guard against him. Her temporary victory would doubtlessly be negated once the old man woke from his potion-induced stupor and sent for his trusted counsellor… but it was a nuisance. An insult. A deed that called for revenge. He would see to it that the haughty thing would drop to her knees and beg him for forgiveness! All he had to do was wait. Time was his friend.

The potion which he used to bend the old man to his will had been concocted with the greatest cunning. For the people at the court of Edoras, there was no question that it was, indeed, medicine, for there could be no two opinions that the King felt better once he had taken it. It took away his pain for all to see. And yet little did they know that one of its ingredients, the one deemed way more important by Gríma, opened Théoden's mind for suggestions of any kind. How many times had he sat in that chair by the King's bed, softly whispering his poison into the man's ears. Now Éowyn had seen him there, but he did not think that she would make the connection… No, indeed, very soon, she would plead with him to give her uncle more of it! For there was also the beautiful fact that his little draught was highly addictive… and punished negligence in ingestion severely, unless a counteragent was given. Soon, Théoden-King would be screaming in torment.

He looked forward to seeing the expression of deep loathing on Éowyn's face once she had to admit defeat. Another lesson taught. 'You cannot best me.' And still, the young, beautiful woman fascinated him endlessly. There was such spunk in her, her spirit wild and free like one of the fillies on the plains. She was passionate and proud, intelligent and resourceful. A worthy opponent! If he was not mistaken, Éomund's daughter had been in the process of defying him earlier this past morning. There was no doubt in Gríma's mind that the 'letter' in her hand had – in fact – been a warning meant for her brother.

The smirk on his face deepened. He had been angry with Gamling at first for intervening, but now, with a bit of distance, he was actually glad he had not taken the parchment from Éowyn's hands. It would have left him with no choice but to put her in the dungeon as her brother's co-conspirator. He even might have had to execute her together with Éomer. This was not what he wanted. He wanted… her. By his side. Out of her own, free will. He grimaced.

For all of his own resourcefulness, Gríma still failed to see how to realise this greatest of his desires. Once his mission was accomplished and the Mark under Saruman's yoke, his master had promised him Éomund's daughter for his own, but how could this wonderful woman ever love someone she held responsible for the death of her family and the doom of their people? Of course, there was always the way of bending her to his will with the help of his potions… but such a victory would be bereft of meaning for him. What a mess…

With a soundless sigh, Wormtongue settled back his armchair, a rare, wistful smile upon his lips… when the sound of knocking woke him from his contemplations. A brief glance at the world beyond the window confirmed to him that it had to be well past midday. About time.

"Enter!" he said, and braced himself for the coming confrontation. The door opened, and in came the very object of his lengthy deliberations… followed by the Captain of the Royal Guard… and their old healer. He blinked, irritated for a moment, but quickly recovered into the bland expression behind which he could always hide his thoughts so well. With the barest hint of a nod, he greeted his guests. "My Lady… Captain… Mistress… How can I be of service?"

Éowyn looked even paler than usual as she came to a halt before him, worry clearly written in her blue eyes. Worry… and anger.

"The King is in a bad way, Counsellor."

Gríma lifted a brow.

"I am not surprised."

Éomund's daughter narrowed her eyes.

"We need to know the ingredients of the draught you gave him."

He folded his hands and unflinchingly met her stare.

"It was only ordinary milk of poppy, my lady… although rather strong, to let the King sleep despite of the blow he had received. If you are still insinuating that his condition has anything to do with me, I'm afraid that I must object whole-heartedly. Your uncle's relapse would appear to me rather to be a result of you hindering me in the performance of my duties."

The exchange of doubtful glances between the old healer and the Captain of the Royal Guard behind Éowyn's back did not escape his attention. So they were already questioning themselves and their actions. How satisfying! Gríma did not intend to make this any easier for them.

"What were you doing in the King's bedchambers this morning, Counsellor?" Éowyn asked instead, changing the subject, and although her gaze was still stern, Wormtongue could see increasing uncertainty in her body language. 'You are asking yourself whether you have committed a horrible mistake by antagonising me, aren't you, daughter of Éomund? You are afraid that your actions might do serious harm to a person you love.'

"Watching over your uncle, believe it or not. Like I just stated, the draught I gave him was rather strong. I decided to sacrifice my own sleep to ensure that I would be at hand if his body did not tolerate it… until you thanked me for my care by throwing me out."

To his delight, Éowyn looked even more doubtful now, clearly torn between the need to turn her temporary victory into a lasting one… and a sense of foreboding that the occasion she had chosen had been the wrong one. After a lengthy pause, Éomund's daughter took a deep breath, and Gríma saw clearly that she could barely bring herself to uttering the words. 'She is about to plead with me!'

"Perhaps… that was a misunderstanding." She evaded his gaze, clearly fighting with the words she knew she had to use now in order to get what she wanted. Apologising to the man she loathed seemed to almost cause her bodily pain, Gríma noted with delight. He lifted a questioning brow.

"A 'misunderstanding'? Alas, I understood only too well, my lady: you openly accused me of poisoning the King right before the captain of his guard. After all the hours I invested into your uncle's health, I must admit that I found this rather insulting."

How she squirmed beneath his accusatory gaze! And how much effort it seemed to cost her when she finally looked him in the eye! It did not escape his attention that she had balled her fists.

"Will you help the King, yes or no, Counsellor?"

So, no apology yet.

"And poison him further?" He leaned back and folded his hands in his lap. "Certainly not, Lady Éowyn. I learned my lesson this morning." His pale gaze tore into her's, and in Éowyn's eyes Gríma could read all the hatred and the loathing that had accumulated there for him in the course of the many years in his service for the Royal Household. "The King's predicament is your fault, daughter of Éomund, now deal with it. I see you've got your healer with you, so set her to work. I'm out of this… unless…" He saw her tense. "Unless you and the Captain of the Royal Guard get down on your knees right here before me, and you apologise."

"You must be mad!" Éowyn exclaimed, but he was not yet done.

"You apologise, and when you do it, I better get the impression that you mean it! Until then, I will put down in writing what happened in the King's chambers this morning, for the unfortunate eventuality that the damage you have done to your uncle by denying him my care may be irrevocable. It is your decision."


Author's Notes:

Once again, a heartfelt "Thank you!" to all who reviewed the last chapters. I regret not being able to answer those of you who disabled the PM option, but please know that your feedback is being appreciated. Now, on with the show! After all the action and drama, I hope this new chapter won't be too boring…

Chapter 11: Interlude


Éowyn fumed when she stormed out of Gríma Wormtongue's chambers, and it took the rest of her composure not to throw the door and make a scene. Before her on the benches near the hearth, several members of the Royal Household were taking their midday meal, and many heads turned curiously toward her. It was their undisguised attention which sobered Éomund's daughter quickly and thoroughly. This would not do. With her uncle indisposed, her cousin dead and Éomer gone, she was the head of the Royal Family for the time being. She had to remain in control.

With a deep breath, she came to halt, very much aware of the uncertain looks the Captain of the Royal Guard and their healer were giving her.

"What shall we do now, my lady?" Gamling asked lowly. "I'm afraid Gríma means exactly what he said, and he won't relent unless we kneel before him. If I could be sure that it helped the King, I would consider it, but…"

Éowyn shook her head.

"No, Gamling, there must be a different way. Mistress, please go and see whatever you can do further for the King. I will be with you in a moment."

"Aye, my lady…" The old healer nodded and shuffled over to Théoden's chambers to disappear behind the thick oaken doors. Following her path with her eyes, Éowyn became aware that they were still being stared at by the people at the hearth. Of course. After the shocking revelations of the night, no official announcement had been made yet, and people wondered and worried. Surely, all kinds of rumours had to be flying around. It was time to put an end to those and let them hear the truth. Which revealed another problem…

Éowyn sighed. It was usually Wormtongue's task to make official announcement. Yet Gríma had just now made it abundantly clear that he would not cooperate unless she would degrade herself by kneeling to him. She stood still the twilight, undecided, when the Golden Hall's doors were opened and one of the door wards entered, and, after a brief glance around, approached her. Involuntarily, she straightened and braced herself for whatever was to come.

Just before he reached her, the man came to a halt and bowed. She recognised Héogrim, one of the older members of the guard. She wondered where Háma was.

"My Lady Éowyn, a messenger has arrived from Westfold. He says he has something in his keeping that needs to be delivered to the King, personally, on Marshal Erkenbrand's orders."

The letter the Worm had mentioned! At last, all rumour would end and be replaced by facts. She welcomed and feared these prospects at the same time. She returned the guard's greeting with an indicated nod.

"Unfortunately, the King is unable at present to see him. I will gladly accept the parcel in his stead and give it to him once he is feeling better. Please, Héogrim, lead him in."

"Aye, my lady." With another curt bow, the man turned away.

"What might it be?" Gamling wondered aloud, as he followed Éowyn over to the dais. With her eyes on the door, Éowyn sat on the chair beside the throne, while the Captain of the Royal Guard positioned himself on the side.

"It must be Marshal Erkenbrand's account of the attack on the Fords. He announced it in the brief message he sent ahead by bird. Gríma mentioned it last night." She noticed how the old man froze beside her. When he spoke again, his voice sounded husky.

"Well… at least then we won't have to hear these tidings from the lips of the Counsellor, although I dread what they might bring."

Together, they followed the men's path. Shortly before they reached the dais, Héogrim stepped aside with a short nod, unblocking her view of the arrival. The rider greeted her with a deep bow, and when he looked up, Éowyn realised that he was rather young, younger than her brother. Like most errand riders, he was of lighter built than the average Rohir, and in his gaunt, dust-covered face, the strains of his long ride were clearly edged into the weathered skin around his tired eyes.

"Greetings, my lady," he said and straightened. "My name is Bregdan. I was sent from the Hornburg by Lord Erkenbrand two days ago, to give this to our king." He briefly lifted his hand with a sturdy, weathered-looking, leathern cylinder, but made no move to hand it over. When he spoke again, his voice was suddenly muted. "I was specifically told to hand it over to no one else. Yet your guard told me that Théoden-King is unable to see me. Is there a chance, perhaps, that he will see me later?"

Racking her brain in vain for an elusive answer, Éowyn decided to tell the man the truth, even if her words would doubtlessly further the dark rumours that were flying around in every part of the kingdom these days.

"Alas, Bregdan, I fear that this won't be possible. Théoden King is indisposed today, and we do not know when he might be able to welcome guests again. Yet one look at you is enough to establish that the errand Marshal Erkenbrand gave you was of the highest importance and cannot wait."

"Aye, my lady," he confirmed. "That is so."

"Then I would ask you to hand it over to me, and I will see to it that the information you bring will be distributed to those who need to hear them." Éowyn extended her hand. "I do not believe that the Lord of Westfold will find any fault in that."

She could see the inner fight in the messenger's eyes and wondered if Erkenbrand had ordered to keep his scroll especially from their king's counsellor. At last, the young man stepped closer and offered her the cylinder with a deep bow. He still did not look as if he was at peace with his decision when he retreated, but had resigned to following his lord's orders in the best possible way.

"Thank you, my lady."

Éowyn nodded.

"And I thank you, Bregdan, for your loyalty and effort. Please, make yourself comfortable in our guesthouse until you feel ready for the ride back. Whatever you need – food, a bath and a bed – will be found there. Let us know when you plan to return to Westfold, for it might very well be that Théoden-King decides to give you a return letter for the Lord Erkenbrand… and of course, we will be glad to give you supplies for the ride."

"My thanks, Lady Éowyn. With your permission…"

He saw agreement in her eyes and turned around, leaving behind a Princess of the Mark who stared with dread at the thing in her hand. The Lord of Westfold was a very meticulous man. There was no question that his account of the battle would be precise and open the bleeding wound in her heart even further. And yet she needed to know what had happened.

With fingers that were slightly shaking, Éowyn opened the cylinder. Yet she had barely begun to pull out the parchment inside, when a painful cry rang out from Théoden's chambers. She blanched, and next to her, a soundless curse left Gamling's lips.

"I will go and see what Yalanda is doing," she heard herself as if from a great distance. Somehow she managed to stand up, although suddenly, her legs felt like two wooden sticks. "Please, Gamling, assemble the Council. Let me know when they have arrived, so that we may discuss the contents of Lord Erkenbrand's message. You will find me in the King's chambers."

"Aye, my lady. But what about Gríma?"

Éowyn could only stare back at the old warrior. Her head felt completely empty. Gamling inhaled.

"We cannot very well leave him out of this if we still want him to treat the King, my lady. He is, after all, part of the Council. To bypass him will only make things even more difficult."

She swallowed, seeing the wisdom in the guard's words, even if she loathed it.

"Tell him then he may attend the Council if he so wishes. I do not want him to leave Meduseld though. Please instruct your men accordingly… And now I must go." She took another deep breath and forced her feet to carry her over to the King' chambers, dreading to think of what she would find behind her uncle's doors…



"Rohirrim! To me!"

The wall of orcs around him seemed impenetrable. No matter which way Éomer turned, no matter how many hands and arms he cut off, the gaps in their battle formation were closed immediately, pressing ever closer. Now even Firefoot was close to panic as he kicked and bucked and bit without succeeding in creating the necessary gap for their escape.

"Èomer!" Éothain's voice shouted from somewhere far away. "This way! Éomer!"

But he could not see his friend over the throng of orcs around him, and suddenly, his stallion screamed in pain as a crossbow-bolt buried itself deeply in his flank. The mighty body beneath him shuddered, and a moment later, the son of Éomund found himself flying through the air, unseated.

"No! Firefoot! No!"

He landed on his feet and instantly started forward again to help his mount, Gúthwinё still in his hand, but right before his eyes, the big Grey suddenly came off his legs and disappeared in the churning sea of orcs.


With renewed energy, he hacked and slashed his way towards the place of his stallion's fall. His blade rose and fell, red showers following its deadly arcs. He yelled, screaming out his fury, unable to hear himself over the din of battle. If this was to be his end, he would take as many of these beasts with him as he could. Step for step he advanced, every now and then glimpsing the shortest view of grey fur in the writhing dark mess before him. The grey turned red.

'No… no…'

Butchering the last beast between him and his trusted steed with a vicious swipe, Éomer jumped forth. Yet the sight he was granted nailed him to the ground. Right before him on the soil that was saturated with blood, his beloved stallion lay…or rather, what was left of his beloved stallion. It felt like a bolt straight through his heart. For a moment, all strength fled his body as Éomer stood and stared at what had once been his animal alley in their eternal fight. Guttural laughter broke out all around him over his dismay. He barely heard it.

For the eternity of a dozen heartbeats, turning his sword on himself appeared like a very tempting option to Éomund's son… but then he felt it, the familiar rise of red-hot fury in his veins, demanding revenge. Demanding blood. Demanding – a hand grabbed his shoulder. With a battle cry, he whirled around and stabbed his blade right through his attacker's chest with his full body weight behind the thrust.

"Éomer, no!" Éothain's voice again, somewhere behind him. Dismayed.

He stared into blue eyes. The face before him… belonged to his cousin. In horror, Éomer let go of the sword hilt.


Théodred's mouth worked as he clutched at the weapon that was embedded in his flesh. No sound escaped him, but from the corners of his mouth, two red lines began to flow. His eyes stared in dazed consternation at the man he regarded as his brother.

"Éomer…" His knees buckled.

"No, no, no! Théodred!" Éomer caught his cousin before he could fall to the ground. "I did not mean to… How can you be here? I thought…" Cautiously, he laid his brother in all but blood down, dismayed to see that the thin red rivulets had thickened. Théodred closed his eyes in agony and coughed up a fine spray of bright red blood.

"Don't die, Cousin!" He turned around, desperate. "Tolgor! Tolgor, to me! Help!" Another glance at his fallen cousin. Théodred's eyes were already glazing over with death. "No! No! No! Théodred!"

Suddenly, there was another face hovering above him. It looked frightened. He knew that face. He grabbed his friend's arms.

"Éothain! Help! Please! Find Tolgor and-"

"It was a dream, Éomer! Just a dream!" He was given a soft shake. "Wake up, Éomer!"

For the longest moment, all that the son of Éomund could do was stare at his captain and friend while his heart threatened to burst from his ribcage. Only gradually, reality began to seep into his consciousness. It was dark, Éothain's face only weakly outlined against the darkness by one of their campfires further back… whereas he had killed his cousin in broad daylight.

Letting go of Éothain's arms, he sat up and cast a wild glance around. There was no trace of Théodred, only more of his riders on the ground around him, who were staring at him with obvious dismay. With a shaky breath that erupted from his mouth in a white cloud, Éomer ran a hand through his mane and closed his eyes in painful relief.


Right next to him, Éothain kneeled down and laid a hand upon his shoulder in comfort.

"Damnation, Éomer, what did you dream? You scared me witless!"

And still Éomer could not answer him. The nightmare had stolen his breath, and the image of the vacant stare in his cousin's dead eyes refused to vanish from his mind. Somewhere from the depths of his subconsciousness, a sudden dread rose and froze his blood. He could only shake his head. He did not even hear Éothain's confirmation to their riders that the situation was under control. It had felt so real… it still felt real.

At length, his friend returned.

"Are you all right, Éomer? Can I do anything for you?"

The lump in his throat seemed enormous. Somehow, he finally managed to manoeuvre the first words around it.

"I'm… I'm just…"

"Thoroughly shaken, I would say," Éothain finished the sentence for him. "Gods, I can see that. I don't think I ever heard you screaming like that."

"It seemed… so real."

"Whatever you dreamt, it wasn't." From one of their men, Éothain was handed a cup of steaming hot broth. He offered it to his friend. "Here, have a bit of that. It might help to tie you a bit more to reality."

Éomer accepted it gratefully. The warmth felt good in his ice-cold fingers. He took a tentative sip, almost burning his lips. For a while, both warriors kept their silence while their riders gradually returned to sleep or their various tasks, and the son of Éomund felt deeply appreciative over his friend's decision not to dig deeper. Sip by sip, he emptied the cup. The warmth of the broth spread in his stomach and demonstrated to him what he had sensed earlier that evening: winter was not yet done with them. It was bloody cold.

"Better?" Éothain inquired at last, and he nodded.

"Aye. Thank you." And still he felt far too anxious to lie down and risk the chance of encountering his dream for a second time in the same night. Following this impulse, he peeled himself out of his bedroll. "I'll take a little walk; see how everything's going."

"Everything's quiet. Most of the men are asleep." Éothain lifted a questioning brow, wordlessly asking his friend whether he was certain about not wanting to talk about what had disturbed his rest, but found himself ignored. "Do you want me to come with you?" he inquired nonetheless.

Struggling to his feet with considerable difficulties, Éomer shook his head.

"No. Go back to sleep, Éothain. I'll be right back. I just need to walk the circuit for a little while."

He stretched his arms and grimaced at the discovery that his restless sleep had bought him a most unpleasant crick in the neck. Together with the many bruises he had collected in the battle and the still bone-deep exhaustion, the son of Éomund felt like quite the mess… and there was no telling what further hardships awaited him once they reached Edoras and travelled on to Westfold. Only one thing was certain: they were testing their limits these days, perhaps even redefining them. With a soundless sigh, Éomer turned his back on his friend and made for the nearest campfire, where he could see the silhouette of a guard against the flames.

As he came closer, he saw that it was Anlaf. With an acknowledging nod, Éomer came to a halt beside his captain, relishing the warmth of the fire. For the longest time, only the crackle of the flames could be heard, as the two warriors stood side by side. Although he was certain to have heard his screams, the older man remained silent about it, and Éomer appreciated his discretion. Nightmares were common enough in the aftermath of a battle, but it was probably the first time Anlaf had ever heard his commander being assaulted by them.

At length, it was Éomer who began a conversation after a lengthy look at the overcast sky.

"There's not a single star to be seen…

"Aye," Anlaf inhaled and followed his gaze. "It's too bloody dark to continue. It's hard to tell the time when you can see neither stars nor moon, but I think it is still well before midnight. I doubt, though, that the clouds will clear any time soon. With your permission, Marshal, I will let the men continue to sleep. I know we are pressed for time to return, but it is no use. Once you've left the fire, you can barely see your hand in front of your face. We might even make up for the time we lose now by being able to travel faster if we continue at first light, rested."

His captain's suggestion was nothing if not sensible. And still Éomer loathed to lose yet more time, even more so after his horrid dream. Had battle already commenced at the Fords? Were they wasting precious hours right now sleeping, while many leagues away, Théodred was already fighting for his life and the lives of their people? Then again, it was also clear to Éomund's son that he would needed his wits against the Worm upon his return to Edoras. Having to confront his enemy tired and exhausted could only end in disaster. Alas, once again it seemed that his choice was only between two evils.

With a deep sigh, Éomer nodded.

"I agree, Captain. Let the men sleep. They need the rest, as do our horses. But when we travel on tomorrow by first light, your half of the éored will only accompany us until we reach the central plains. You will not return with us to Edoras, but already make for Westfold. I will need to deliver my report to the King, first, before I can strengthen the Second Marshal's forces at the Fords, and I also need to leave them the promised men for their defence. Hopefully, we will still come in time to aid them."

"Aye, Marshal."

Éomer clapped Anlaf's shoulder and turned to go, suddenly overcome by an urgent impulse to visit Firefoot to further distance himself from the evil dream. Feeling a little warmer, he stepped away from the light and waited for his eyes to adjust. As usual, especially on a dark night such like this where human eyes were easily deceived, they had spread their éored's horses in a protective ring around them, trusting their mounts to detect any signs of trouble much earlier than they could.

Finding Firefoot in their herd of predominantly grey horses in near darkness was something Éomer could not hope to achieve lightly, so he decided to have his stallion find him. He whistled… and waited, his heart once again beating wildly in his chest at the thought what the enemy had done to his beloved four-legged alley in his dream. He needed to see the big grey alive and well to chase those images from his mind. But where was he? He whistled again, suddenly anxious for no rational reason… but then a low whicker set his mind at rest, and only a moment later, the sound of hoof beats reached his ears. Like a ghost, Firefoot appeared out of the darkness.

A broad, relieved smile spread on Éomer's lips as he lifted his arms and slung them around the stallion's neck. Curse that dream, it had really unsettled him! He could not remember having ever felt such abysmal dread. If only he could talk to Théodred, as well…

"There you are, Meara-mule! You certainly took your time to react to your master's call…" he teased lovingly, his fingers unwittingly trying to smoothen his mount's dark forelock, and laughed when Firefoot reacted with a friendly head-butt. "Aye, I am happy to see you, too." He pressed his face into the thick fur, rejoicing in the warmth and the familiar scent in an effort to clear his mind. "You have no idea how happy…"

His hands wandered down to the stallion's muzzle to gently massage the soft skin around the stallion's nostrils. His smile broadened when eager, warm lips closed questioningly around his fingers in expectation of a treat.

"Alas, I must apologise," Éomer whispered against the muscular neck. "I did not think to bring you anything…except for caresses. But these are heartfelt."

For a while, it was enough for him just to stand in the darkness, in reassurance of reality, and slowly, the horrible images from his dream faded away. When at last he woke from his absorption, the son of Éomund felt that he was being watched. He turned his head. There were two dark silhouettes outlined against the fire, one a little lighter than the other, but it was too dark for details. Warily, he turned around.


"It is Falk, Marshal," the taller of the two men answered him. "And my brother."

"Is there a problem?" He tensed.

"Possibly." The two riders came closer. "Nothing significant, but …it might be a problem you might actually enjoy solving, seeing you and your mount together like this." Falk nodded. In the darkness, Éomer could only recognize the faintest outline of his rider's face. "Forgive us. We would not have mentioned it otherwise."

Éomer narrowed his eyes, not yet knowing whether to relax or not.

"What do you mean?"

Falk cleared his throat.

"My brother was guarding the horses for the last two hours and… Well, why don't you tell the Marshal yourself, Léod? After all, you do have a tongue… and something to say."

"What is it, Léod?" Éomer asked the younger man specifically. The youth had not been riding with them for very long and was still exceptionally shy in the presence of his commanders.

"It is Hasufel, my lord. I watched him for a while, and it seems to me, as if… I don't know how to say this… He is…"

"Anxious? Restless?"

"Aye. Perhaps he is only missing his master, but I think his narrow escape might have to do something with it, too. He finds no rest, and he disturbs the other horses. I felt pity watching him… and I tried to approach and soothe him, but he wouldn't let me near. Then I remembered your horse-magic, my lord, and I wondered…"

"Where is he?"

"Will you see him, Marshal?" Falk asked. "If you are not too exhausted, yourself? When Léod told me about his observations, I immediately thought of you. There are none in our éored who can work such wonders with horses, although we all deem ourselves expert riders. If it is not too much to ask…"

"Our horses are our livelihood, Falk. Of course I will see what I can do." Éomer granted the younger man a nod and stepped away from his own mount with a clap on Firefoot's neck. "Do not fear to speak to me when you see something that seems important to you, Léod," he said. "We might not have had many direct dealings with each other, yet, but I do remember that every time we had, it was worth hearing. Now, show me where you last saw Hasufel."




It was late when Éowyn made her way through the twilight of the Golden Hall over to her chambers. The flickering light of the hearth fire was barely enough to light her way, and whereas usually, Éomund's daughter found its warm glow comforting, the way the flames caused the shadows to hectically jump around the columns and tiles around her like an army of ghosts did nothing to calm her anxious mind.

The long and disconcerting council hours had appropriately ended what Éowyn was certain had been the worst day of her life safe the ones when their parents had died. The atmosphere had been fraught with tension when the members of the council had arrived; an emotion that had quickly been replaced with growing dismay when Lord Aethelmaer had read out Marshal Erkenbrand's letter to them. A cold, clammy feeling had settled in Éowyn's stomach at the vivid description of her cousin's violent death and the hard accusations directed at Éomer. There was no question that the Lord of Westfold regarded her brother's actions as treason, and from the looks of the men around her, their pale miens and bloodless lips, no other conclusion could be drawn than the one that these men of power shared the Marshal's view.

With unseeing eyes, Éowyn opened the heavy wooden door and slipped into her chambers, thankful for the privacy it offered as she locked the door behind herself. She could not bear to see visitors now, not even Gamling, whose face had told her all too clearly that at last, he too, had finally made up his mind concerning her brother in the light of these new revelations. And the Worm… she did not know what she would do to him if she were forced to endure his presence now. To see the triumphant sparkle in his colourless eyes and cruel anticipation at the thought of finally having his enemy where he had wanted him for all these long years. There was no question anymore: upon his return to Edoras, Éomer would be arrested, incarcerated and sentenced for treason, and there was nothing she could do about it.

With a deep, soundless sigh, Éowyn slid into the chair by the window, rested her elbows on the table and hid her face in her hands as desperation carried her away. Théodred… was dead. Éomer… would follow him soon, disgrace and shame forever linked to his name. Her uncle… was still fighting, but things looked bad, and although he had been reinstated by the council, the Worm still refused to help. If Théoden died, she would be left as the only surviving member of the Royal family, and what then? The Rohirrim had never been ruled by a queen. Would they accept her as their ruler? And what would her adversary make of such a situation? She shuddered to follow that thought.

A sudden hard knocking sound made her jump. Eyes widened and holding her breath, Éowyn stared at the door. There was only one who would dare to disturb her at this late hour and after this excruciatingly cruel day, and it was not Gamling. She remained silent. The knock was repeated, more urgently now.

"Lady Éowyn?... My Lady?" It was not Gríma. It was her handmaid. "My Lady, if you hear me, please open the door! The Mistress Yalanda sent me, it is about the king!"

With a soundless gasp, the daughter of Éomund jumped to her feet. So after everything this day had already thrown at her, it seemed that things were about to get even darker. She turned the key in the lock and opened, looking into a young, concerned face.

"What is it, Maelwyn? How is the King?"

The young woman swallowed.

"Mistress Yalanda is very concerned, my Lady. She bade me get you, lest…" Her voice quivered. "You know, lest…"

Once again, Éowyn felt the blood drain from her face as she straightened. If that was so… she was running out of options. Her pride was secondary. She could not hold on to it now. She would have to do this thing now, no matter how much she dreaded the thought. From somewhere deep within her, determination rose.

"I will see the King at once, Maelwyn. Please, in the meantime, find Lord Gamling and tell him to meet me in Théoden's chambers at once... and he is to bring Counsellor Gríma with him. It is important, and it is urgent. Go."


Only five minutes later, Éomund's daughter sat by her uncle's bedside, the stifling air and stench of sickness almost choking her, and her hand on Théoden's hot brow. In the throes of his fever dreams, the old man groaned and mumbled unintelligible gibberish, the look of his watery blue eyes dazed and confused whenever he opened them. He had not even recognized her when she had entered his room. Every now and then, his groans became a scream, even though he was by now to weak for any strength in his voice.

Her innards twisted into a tight knot, Éowyn met the healer's eyes.

"He is not going to last the night, is he, Yalanda?" she whispered, the words barely fitting through her throat. The old woman looked at her gravely.

"I dare not say," she confessed. "But he is getting weaker with every passing hour. I have done everything in my power to help him, and still…" She shook her head helplessly. "I am at my wit's end. No matter what I do, the fever is burning him alive."

"Théodred?... Théodred?" A painful gasp ended Théoden's outcry and pierced Éowyn's heart.

"Théodred is not here, Uncle," she soothed and stroked his sweaty brow. "But I am here, Éowyn. I am right here beside you." Her desperate gaze met the healer's, when suddenly, there was a sharp knock at the door. Éowyn straightened, dismayed and relieved at the same time. Dismayed at the prospect of having to face her adversary in this most desperate of situations, and yet relieved that the time had finally come to meet his challenge head-on. There was no more delaying the inevitable. "Enter!"

It was Gamling's face she saw first when the door opened, the old man's mien concerned and sad. After a quick, alarmed glance at his feeble king, his gaze met Éowyn's as he stepped into the room with stiff steps. There was no doubt that he knew what would be demanded of him.

"My Lady…" He inclined his head in greeting. Less courteous in his bearing, Gríma Wormtongue followed him inside, his fingers clutching the collar of his dark robe. The expression of his pale features was frozen, except for a curiously raised eyebrow that seemed to challenge her to speak, first. He neither greeted her, nor made any indication to speak at all.

With a soundless, deep breath, Éowyn rose to her feet, inwardly steeling herself for the dreaded confrontation. Her lake-blue eyes found the counsellor's, and she lifted her chin.

"The King is dying, Lord Gríma."

He stared at her without surprise.

"I do believe that I warned you what would happen if you forced me to withhold your uncle's medicine from him, Lady Éowyn." The pale irises wandered to the Captain of the Royal Guard. "I also seem to remember that the honourable Lord Gamling was present when I issued my warning. Is it not so, Captain?"

Caught between the hammer and the anvil, the older man avoided his challenger's icy stare. His gaze rested on his king's niece, instead. And still he needed to speak the accursed words.

"Aye, Lord Gríma. I was." Gamling lowered his head.

Wormtongue was satisfied… at least for the moment. He turned back to the young woman.

"You see now what harm you have done, my Lady. With all your unjust accusations, your spite… and your pride. You commanded Lord Gamling to forcibly remove me from the King's sickbed, and now your uncle is paying the price for it… You are scared that your mistake will put the King of the Mark in his grave, aren't you? That's why we are here."

Whereas only the past morning, Éowyn would have answered her tormentor's challenge with an equally scathing reply, she could now only stare at him… and swallow the words on her tongue. Her fingers clenched in the folds of her robe and she hated how they gave away her disposition, but there was just nothing she could do about it now. She was defeated.

"Could you still help him? Or is he beyond even your help now?" she asked, her tone neither challenging nor begging. She was prepared to give him what he asked, except… she would not beg.

The Worm cocked his head, not even moving a single facial muscle that would give away his inclination as he glanced at the sick man in the bed behind.

"I suppose I still could..."

"It is not too late?"

"Probably not."

His cool demeanour threatened to inflame her rage anew, but with iron determination, Éowyn forced the impulse down. She drew in a deep breath.

"And all you need…"

"… is your formal apology, Lady Éowyn. Yes. Precisely."

She narrowed her eyes, but he did not flinch from the intensity of her stare.

"You were officially reinstated as Hand of the King only this past afternoon."

The faintest hint of a sarcastic smirk played around the corner of his mouth.

"By the Council. Yes. That was, however, only a secondary requirement for the continuation of my service." 'You will not get around apologising, Éowyn!' his expression said all too clearly.

Behind her, Théoden groaned when another fever cramp seized him. It was all Éowyn needed to hear to make up her mind. With another deep intake of air, the daughter of Éomund straightened. 'My pride is not important now.' Her voice sounded cool and sincere when she spoke. `Well then…

"Lord Gríma, I hereby apologise for my false accusations and for removing you from the King's care. My actions arose from the deep concern for my uncle's health in the wake of the blow he was dealt."

"They were born from extreme prejudice and the deep desire to find the perfect opportunity to rid yourself of my person."

It was not as if she could deny his words. Gods, he could not expect her to suddenly sing his praise, could he? So Éowyn nodded.

"You know me too well, Lord Gríma. And I hope you understand that the feelings I have for you cannot radically change in the course of one day. I will admit though that, in this case, I treated you wrongly and unjustly by believing you to be poisoning Théoden-King. For that, I apologise. I do not know whether this is enough for you, but it is all you will get from me."

She stared back at him, and the moments ticked by. Oppressive silence filled the room as she waited for Wormtongue's decision. If he decided that the humiliation of her apology was not sufficient… she would not give him more. She could not. It was impossible.

There was something going on behind her opponent's brow, she could almost see it although Gríma's expression had not changed. He was contemplating her offer. What would he decide? She was little more than a worm at the angler's hook right now. To which length would he go to humiliate her further? But was that what he truly wanted? Or was it not rather that he wanted for her to like him? For all these years that these games had been going on, Éowyn had never been able to shake the notion that there had been something else beneath Gríma's interactions with her, something different than spite. And yet, after having issued her brother's almost certain death penalty, how could he still hope to ever get on her good side?

For a moment, the Counsellor's pale face blurred before her eyes, and it was only then that Éowyn realised that she had been holding her breath. As she inhaled, she beheld something like the ghost of a smirk around the corners of the Worm's mouth. A smirk that did not reach his eyes. And he surprised her.

"For the good of the Mark and her king, I will accept your apology, my Lady." He granted her a very small nod. "I do believe that people can be taught, and so I do hope that you have learned from your mistake and will, from now on, acknowledge my contribution to our ruler's wellbeing." He turned his head to regard the clearly uncomfortable Captain of the Royal Guard at his left side.

"I also do realise you were under orders when you removed me this morning, Captain," he said. "In this case, the Lady Èowyn's apology will suffice to remedy the damage done. But be aware that I might not always be so lenient. The King's condition calls for fast action, and I will not risk his life by complicating this unpleasant business yet further. The good of the Mark is at stake. Now leave, and let me do my work."



The sun's pale light fell on the soft hills of the central Mark, obstructed only by a thin, high veil of cloud that took just the edge of the wintery glare from it. It illuminated an empty landscape, a territory that had been cleared from all its usual inhabitants like the herds of the famed horses of Rohan and their keepers. Silence lay like a death-blanket upon the deserted hills, and to a wanderer, it would have seemed oppressive, had it not suddenly been disturbed by the distant thunder of iron-shod hooves.

Winding through the landscape like a snake, a line of horsemen came into view, riding in pairs, and the pale light reflected on their armour and spears. After the night's rest, men's and horses' strength had at least been partially restored, and so the éored made good time for a change, all the more as the territory had at last begun to level out towards the plains.

Éomer was thankful for the daylight. Although the task of calming poor Garulf's riderless horse had at least for a while put his mind off the horrific images of his dream, they were still in his head, and despite their forced long rest, he had slept only little for fear to encounter them once again.

Time and again, the son of Éomund found his gaze straying to the west, where somewhere far beyond the horizon, his cousin was hopefully still holding the Westfold fords. They were travelling faster than the day before, but to him, their progress still felt excruciatingly slow, and there was this nagging voice in the back of his head whispering ceaselessly that they would come too late.

But what could he possibly do? Bypassing Edoras and not reporting what they had found on the fringes of the Entwood was not an option, however necessary it seemed to Éomer. He had already disobeyed Théoden-King in going north and taking his full éored to accomplish the task, there was no question that a delay in reporting would do little to rectify the situation. And he also needed to leave the promised men for the defence of the city. No, they had to head for the City of Kings, first.

Frowning at the prospects of how they would be welcomed in Edoras, the Third Marshal of Riddermark inhaled. He did not look forward to having to explain himself to the Worm. But if the Council did not understand what a threat a host of over twohundredandfifty Uruk-hai posed to the realm if permitted to go unchallenged, there was little to be done. Somehow, he would have to make them see.

"You do not look rested," Éothain spoke into his dark thoughts. "Is it still the dream… or the thought of what lies ahead?"

Reluctantly, Éomer met his friend's worried gaze.

"It's…" He shook his head. "It's both. I wish we were moving faster. I know it's too much to ask, but…" He shrugged. "We lost too much time with those bloody orcs."

Éothain nodded thoughtfully.

"Yes. But it needed to be done. If this group had been allowed to cross the Mark, they could have done terrible damage. I must admit that I had my doubts, as well, but I am glad now that we rode out. The Council must understand the threat they were posing to our unarmed settlements."

"I hope they will, Éothain," Éomer sighed. "I sure hope they will. But I cannot be certain. I don't know…" He didn't finish his sentence.

"I fail to see how they cannot."

Éothain's attempt at cheering him up lacked conviction, the son of Éomund found, but these days, he was thankful even for the effort. Béma knew there was little enough warmth between people in these days of constant suspicion. All kept to themselves as much as they could and did their best not to get involved in proceedings which could eventually hurt them. Not that he could blame them.

"The Worm will do his bloody best to ensure that they see things his way. I promise you that he will hit us with every infamy he can possibly conceive. We must be ready for all the accusations he will throw at us… and under no circumstances can we afford to lose our head."

Éothain snorted.

"He knows your weak spots, though, and he will hit them hard."

"Aye, he will…" Éomer narrowed his eyes, unwilling to continue the discussion with his captain and friend. And Éothain understood and left it at that. Directing their attention at the empty landscape before them offered nothing to distract them from their gloomy thoughts. Except for the endless rolling hills, there was nothing to see. One could almost believe that they were the last people alive in this empty land…

"Riders of Rohan!" a voice suddenly called out, barely audible over the din of their moving horses. "What news from the Mark?"

Éomer reacted at once, his warrior's reflexes taking over in the light of an uncertain situation. With skill and efficiency, he checked Firefoot and signalled for their éored to turn around, not understanding where that voice had come from when the land they were riding through had seemed completely deserted only moments ago. It was not as if there was any cover to be had amongst these treeless, grassy hills, either… And still, as he turned his mount's head around, there were suddenly three silhouettes standing near the foot of the hill they had just passed.

'Where have they come from?' he wondered, suddenly tense, and his fingers tightened around his spear. 'And why did none of us see them?' He swallowed. If they had failed to notice these now very obvious strangers, how many others could there have been? Was it fatigue that had led to their oversight… or was something different at play here… some devious trickery?

As they approached the three shapes, Éomer shielded his eyes from the sun to assess just what they were dealing with. These were no orcs, that much seemed already safe to say. They looked human, only that one of them was significantly shorter than the other two, and of much broader built. Was that a dwarf? He had never seen a dwarf in his life. There were no dwarfs in the Riddermark, but from everything Éomer had heard about them, it seemed to him that he was looking at one now.

And there was something peculiar about the one to his left, as well… something that made Éomer's skin prickle and rendered this whole situation even more unreal. Something that told him that, while the tall, slender being in the grey cloak looked human enough, it was not a human being at all. 'Could it be an elf? – An elf and a dwarf travelling together? That must be unheard of! And what are they doing here?'

Frowning, he directed Firefoot closer, and his warily narrowed eyes finally found the third stranger. Here, at last, he was certain that he was indeed looking at a man, and yet, 'ordinary' seemed to be the farthest word he would have used to describe him as he approached cautiously. The man had a strange aura, an air of nobility and wisdom that made it impossible to guess his age… and he didn't seem to be afraid. Behind Éomer, his éored fell into their common custom of encircling the strangers, a thicket of spears and more than a few arrows pointed at the unmoving travellers, ready to kill at the faintest sign of a threat. Only waiting for their Marshal's command.

Staring into the third stranger's grey eyes, Éomer pushed his destrier forwards into their midst, shoulders instinctively squared. His intense gaze was returned unflinchingly, but there were no weapons in their captives' hands. He was not sure what they had found here. Not at all. The three before him looked weather-beaten and weary, as if they had travelled a great distance. And yet they had no horses and seemingly carried no provisions, which was strange. They were armed with swords and axes though, clad in leather and those strange, grey cloaks, and, in the dwarf's case – in armour, which screamed to Éomund's son that he was looking at battle-hardened warriors here. Which left one question. He cleared his throat, and his voice sounded stern when he addressed the tall, dark-haired stranger in front of him: "What business does an elf, a man and a dwarf have in the Riddermark? Speak quickly!"


Chapter 13: Questions of Loyalty


"What is he doing?"

"Who are these strangers? Does he know them?"

"It certainly looks like he does, but…"

"Éothain?... Éothain!"

Somewhere on the far edge of his awareness, Éothain noticed that Aedwulf was addressing him impatiently from behind, but his attention was exclusively focussed on the four people further back, one of them his Marshal and best friend. His best friend he knew no longer what to think about. He felt utterly confused and bewildered, and unable to comprehend what was happening right before his eyes.

Eothain had never seen these strangers before, and he would have placed any bet on the fact that Éomer, too, was just meeting them for the first time in his life. How then could it be then that he had sent their éored away to wait on the path, where none of them would be able to overhear his conversation with these three travellers?

What was it that he felt he had to hide from his own men?

The son of Céorl swallowed, somehow feeling hurt over having been left out. How could it be that Éomer did not even seem to trust him, his best friend? And why did his discussion with these weatherworn travellers look so intimate and not at all tense, which would have only been natural between unacquainted men in these dark times?

He was dimly aware of the ongoing murmuring around him, and yet unable to put an end to it, as he himself did not know what to make of the situation. Only one thing was sure: in the light of everything else that had happened, this strange encounter and the way his friend handled it, the situation was not bound to strengthen their éored's trust in their leader, at a time where it was most needed.

"Eothain?" Aedwulf asked again, sharply, and this time, Eothain reacted. He noticed that there was another man close by. It was Anlaf, he saw when he turned his head. The two captains stared at him with deeply creased brows, wearing tell-tale frowns upon their faces. "Eothain, who are these men? Do you know them?"

Céorl's son could only shake his head in consternation.

"Apart from what they told us, I have no idea. I have certainly never met them before, and I couldn't begin to think where the Marshal should have met them."

Anlaf narrowed his eyes as he followed the distant scene.

"And yet the way they are talking looks like the meeting of well-acquainted people. I mean… two of them are not even human, and all three of them are armed, and if they decide to use their weapons, Éomer will be hard-pressed to come out of this unscathed. How could he send us from his side? And why? What are we not supposed to hear?"

"I don't know." Eothain confessed. "He must have his reasons."

He could feel Anlaf's hard stare, and Aedwulf, too, regarded him strangely now.

"You know, Eothain…" the captain began, and the creases on his brow deepened even further. "This looks strange. I don't have to tell you that. We all disobeyed Théoden-King's orders in riding out against these orcs. We all followed Éomer's command because we saw the sense in it." He shook his head and gestured towards the scene before them. "But this… what are we to make of this? You know the law as well as we do…"

"All strangers found in the Mark are to be apprehended and brought before the King," Eothain nodded.

"Indeed," Aedwulf snorted. "Now tell me, brother, does this look to you as if the Marshal is about to take those men captive? It rather looks to me like a friendly reunion of some sort. And I do not know what to make of that."

"Neither do I," Anlaf added. "And our brothers are just as bewildered. I will not tell you what some of them have already been assuming…"

"He will explain himself," Éothain protested without much conviction, and he hated how his own voice sounded. Éomer had been his best friend ever since he had moved to Edoras seventeen years ago. They had started out in the same éored, learned their trade from the same warriors. They had kept each other safe for all these demanding years. Surely, the son of Éomund deserved his unlimited loyalty, even in this uncertain situation.

But Anlaf was not yet done, and what the older man said mirrored only Éothain's own concerns.

"Provided that the marshal permits them to continue their travels, which is the way this is looking to me… tell me, Éothain, what are we supposed to report once we return to Edoras? Because the Worm will question us, you can bet your life on that. Will we be expected to lie to him… and to the King, as well? If the truth comes out- and it will - we might just find ourselves all a head shorter before we can even comprehend what happened."

Éothain decided that he didn't like the captain's tone. He inhaled, and forced his attention away from the distant scene just long enough to glower at the other rider.

"We need to be patient for now, Captain," he said, and more than just a slight trace of frost crept into his voice. "I have no doubt that the Marshal will fill us in on the details of their conversation when he returns. It is not our place to prematurely question his judgment."

The other warrior narrowed his eyes.

"And yet I see on your face the same irritation that we feel." He cocked an eyebrow in silent question.

"Which means only that I, too, must be patient," Eothain replied icily. From the corners of his eyes, he noticed movement. And really, it was their commander who was approaching them with long steps, an expression of determination on his face. The three men instantly straightened and squared their shoulders, not knowing what to expect.

"Marshal? What shall we do with -"

Éomer did not allow him to finish his question. Instead, he snapped his fingers.

"We will lend our spare horses to these travellers. They will return them upon the end of their mission. Get it done quickly, for neither of us can afford to linger here for much longer."


Éomer could not tell just what kind of reaction he had expected from his brothers-in-arms, but the consternated expressions on all three faces before him – even Eothain's – certainly surprised him. So now he felt the frown creeping into his own features. Expectantly, he lifted his eyebrows, not knowing what to make of their strange expressions.


His three captains first regarded each other, then Eothain cleared his throat.

"You want to give our horses… to these strangers, Sir?"

"That's what I said. Is there anything unclear about that?" His tone sharpened.

'Béma, what is brewing here now? Mutiny?'

Eothain flushed.

"But… should we not bring them before the king, first… Marshal?"

Éomer shook his head.

"There is no time for that now. These men are looking for their friends who were abducted by the same band of orcs we destroyed. I told them that we did not find any other beings among them, but they want to see that for themselves. I will grant them this favour, because afterwards, they promised to come to Edoras to return our horses … and also to help us in our fight. In these evil times, we need every sword, every bow and every axe we can get on our side."

He could tell that his explanation was doing nothing to clear up the situation. After a brief glance at the men around them, it was Anlaf who cleared his throat.

"`But, Marshal…"

Éomer narrowed his eyes and squared his shoulder, his whole body language conveying to his captains that he would not tolerate having his actions called into question.

"I am, of course, aware of our laws, Captain," he interrupted Anlaf in a dangerously calm tone. He focussed his unflinching attention on the man's face. The men who rode with him usually shut up immediately when their commander was in this mood. "I know we are supposed to bring these strangers before the king, but it cannot be done now. They need to hurry north, while we must make haste for Edoras and Westfold. I have every confidence in them honouring their promise."

'And if you question me openly again before our men and those strangers, there will be consequences!' Éomer's gaze told his commanders unmistakably. They knew their marshal to be a man of usually very reliable instincts, so what he needed here was some trust. Trust Éomund's son felt he had earned for the last four years as their éored's commander.

Not waiting for a reply, Éomer snapped his fingers again and gave a sharp whistle, and the riders who had two of their three spare horses tied to the pommel of their saddles, advanced through the crowd. He accepted their reins wordlessly and turned to hand them over to the man who had introduced himself to him as Aragorn. The older man's gaze was thankful as he took them, but at the same time, those keen grey eyes asked Éomer whether he could truly afford to make this temporary gift, a question that Éomund's son answered with an almost imperceptible nod.

"May these bear you to better fortunes than their former masters," he said, and clapped Hasufel's shoulder before he stepped back, hoping that the still restless and shaken stallion would find peace under his temporary new master. Somehow, he had a feeling that he would.

For a moment, Aragorn laid a hand against the destrier's brow, murmuring low, soothing words. Éomer noticed how the horse's ears flickered towards the man… and then it closed its eyes and exhaled. A small, but heartfelt smile travelled over his face. It was obvious that Aragorn was not a man of the Mark, but it was equally obvious that he was a great horseman. Such people could not be evil. It was impossible.

The dwarf seemed less grateful over their unexpected mounts, but his indignant bickering found a quick end upon Aragorn's insistence. As the elf insisted on riding Arod bareback, the saddle was quickly removed, and then it was time to part.

"I hope that you find your friends alive and unharmed," Éomer said, turning back to Aragorn. "I cannot imagine that they were among those Uruks, but perhaps, they managed to escape before we destroyed them. Either way, by giving you these horses, be aware I am placing myself, and maybe my very life, in the keeping of your good faith. Do not fail."

"I will not," Aragorn said, his grey eyes bespeaking great earnestness. "And I promise you to return your horses to Edoras afterwards… and to help the Mark against its enemies every way we can. Ride to good fortune, Son of Èomund. We shall meet again."

"And I look forward to that day."

With the barest hint of a nod, Éomer turned around and accepted Firefoot's reins from Éothain. He swung into the saddle, thus officially signalling his éored that the unexpected break was over. All around him, the riders followed his example as their marshal pushed through them to take the lead again. A moment later, they were making for their capital again; an unusual, heavy silence hanging over their éored as they left the three strangers behind in a dust cloud.



The morning had grown old before Éowyn found the time to have another look into her uncle's chambers after a quick, first check in the morning. Théoden had still been asleep then, with the Worm holding his silent vigil in the nearby armchair, daring her to touch and wake the king. So, for a while, she had just silently stood by the side of his bed and found comfort in the slow rising and falling of the old man's chest, before her gaze had strayed up to his peaceful face. While still pale, Théoden had looked less feverish to her eyes, without the hectic red spots and the line of perspiration along his hairline, which he had displayed just the previous evening.

Satisfied for the time being, she had then allowed duty to reclaim her. Now, another council meeting and several receptions later, it was almost midday and high time to see how her uncle was faring. With a curt nod at the guard who opened the door for her, Éowyn stepped into the king's chambers… just in time to see Wormtongue emerge from Théoden's bedroom. Tension shooting up her spine, she halted, her chin lifted in expectation of her enemy's report.

As usual, there was nothing to be read out of Gríma's inscrutable mask as he beheld her presence.

"The king is still asleep, Lady Éowyn," he stated in a flat voice, colourless eyes meeting hers. "And frankly, I would be astonished if he woke before tomorrow. It was very close last night. Your apology almost came too late."

The Worm's words infuriated and dismayed Éowyn at the same time, the conflicting emotions leaving her speechless for another moment, which Gríma son of Galmod intended to use.

"By the way, I heard that your brother finally seems to be on his way back to Edoras. You are not planning anything… inappropriate, are you, my lady?"

His words helped her rage win the upper hand. Éowyn narrowed her eyes.

"Whatever you mean by 'inappropriate', Lord Gríma, I do not plan it! I attended yesterday's council meeting; I heard what was decided."

"And no doubt are you thrilled by the prospects of having your brother tried for treason." Unimpressed with her fury, Wormtongue meet her gaze unflinchingly. "So forgive me if I am not entirely convinced of your innocent demeanour. So for these reasons, I made the following arrangements: you will refrain from leaving Meduseld until your brother has been apprehended. Should you try to leave nevertheless, you shall find that the doorwards will stop you."

"What?" She could not have heard that right.

"Any person leaving your chambers will be searched for hidden messages. After all, it would be a pity having to incarcerate both the Third Marshal and his sister for treason at the same time… wouldn't it, my lady?"

Éowyn made an angry step towards her adversary before she was even aware of what she was doing, hands balled into fists.

"You cannot forbid me to leave the Golden Hall! I am-"

"Oh yes, I can."

"—the king's niece! You are only a servant of the Royal Family, you do not command us!"

"I am acting in King Théoden's stead in the case of his absence or, as is the case here, in a time when illness prevents him from attending his business. The council confirmed as much only yesterday." A hard light sparkled in Wormtongue's eyes. "So I am fully within my rights to confine the radius of your activity to the interior of the hall, Lady Éowyn. And please be aware that, if you continue to question my authority, I might just as easily confine you to your chambers. The choice is yours."

She could only stare at him, her gaze casting poison-filled daggers at the impertinent man before her while her fingernails dug painfully into the balls of her hands.

"I will speak with Lord Aethelmaer about this!" she hissed, but the Worm granted her only a disinterested smirk as he pushed past her.

"Please do, my lady. If it helps you to understand the situation better, I'm all for it."

And with these words, he left her standing. Struggling for air. Reeling. Asking herself how in Béma's name it could ever have come to this…



After a ride without further interruptions, they reached the crossroads in the middle of the afternoon. From here on, half of their éored would travel further west and reach the Great West Road sometime around nightfall, while the other half would make for Edoras.

The high layer of clouds blocked the sun, otherwise the golden gleam of the great hall of kings would already have been visible from their position. Éomer could not help it, the thought alone left him with a clammy feeling in his stomach. Instead of looking forward to coming home, he dreaded it. What an insane world this had become!

But there was something even more urgent that demanded his full attention for the moment, and just as much depended on this, as did from his report to the King. With a deep intake of breath, he pushed Firefoot through the throng of riders, who were already in the process of dividing themselves into the two appointed groups.

He could not let them ride like this. Questioning their commander. Questioning themselves for still following his orders after what they had just witnessed. It had taken Éomer a while to understand, and to push aside the initial hurt over the perceived insult. He had been right to act as he had, he knew that much. In fact, he had seldom felt such conviction about any of his critical decisions ever before. Now he just had to make his riders see it the same way.

"Éorlingas! Listen to me!" he raised his voice about the din of shouting and moving horses. Only the nearest men looked up. He unhooked his horn and blew into it, and its clear, silver sound effectively stopping all activity.

He had his riders' attention now, and those faces – the young ones, the old ones, the ones he had known for years, just like the ones of their new recruits - they were turned towards him now, expectation in their eyes and the collective wish to cast off the shadow of doubt which had accompanied them for the last hours of their ride. These were his brothers, not in blood, but in soul, and they had risked their lives for each other for all those years they had been riding together without questions. They had accepted him as their leader four years ago, and Éomer had done everything in his power to keep them as save as humanly possible in their war against orcs and necromancer. This was the first time he had ever seen uncertainty, and yes, even disapproval on their faces, and the realisation that his riders doubted him stung. No, he could not let them leave like that. Clearing his throat, Éomer began.

"Éorlingas! My brothers! I know we are pressed for time, but there is something that needs to be addressed before you leave. I'm certain you agree." He met Éothain's gaze, and saw a spark of hope flickering in his friend's and captain's eyes, while their éored formed a tight circle around him. He inhaled.

"Against the king's orders, you rode with me to destroy those orcs. None of you rebelled, none of you stayed back when I asked you to come. You trusted in my judgment, and I am deeply honoured. It was your own judgment that made you do what you did, the sense that it was the right action to be taken even under consideration of the great peril in the west… even against the rule of your king. You put yourself at risk, not for me, but for the Mark."

He inhaled, turning Firefoot in a tight circle only to find Anlaf staring at him.

"Most of us have been riding together for many years now. And I do not remember that my decisions were ever questioned by any of you. For all those years, we've had each other's backs. But now, something new has happened, and you do not know what to make of my decision to let those three strangers we met on the plains go. You're asking yourself why we did not take them captive, as are our orders. Or why I gave them our spare horses."

"They were strangers, to you, as well, weren't they, Marshal?" the scout asked, deep furrows on his brow. "You had never met them before?"

Éomer met his intense stare evenly.

"That is right."

Murmurs and shouts travelled through the group of riders around him in reaction to his statement. He lifted a hand, and the warriors fell silent again.

"I know this must be hard to understand. And I would that I could give you a rational reason for my decision, but I'm afraid that I cannot." More murmurs and confused looks. Éomer inhaled.

"I cannot explain it, other than that it was a feeling, a deep conviction that helping them was the right thing to do, and that the Mark would greatly profit from it. That it might even be a decision that could very well turn the tide on the Mark's fate. In fact, I have never felt such conviction before."

His gaze found Éothain.

"The responsibility for this deed is mine alone. I stand by it. And I would do the same if the situation arose again… If any of you do not agree, there is nothing I can do. You will report what happened to the Worm and the king, and that will likely be the end of me."

"So you are asking us to leave this encounter out of our report," Éothain stated matter-of-factly, and the riders around him paled. "You are asking us to lie to the Worm… and to the king."

Éomer saw his friend take a deep breath. Once again, he turned Firefoot around, his intense gaze travelling over all the familiar and confused faces before him.

"It is your decision. I did not only put my life into those stranger's hands, but into yours, as well. Ask yourself, would I have done that if I were not absolutely convinced that this deed will pay off? That it might even be key to removing Wormtongue from power and restore Théoden-King to his old self? Which is what we all want, if I'm not mistaken."

Anlaf shook his head, still sceptic.

"Forgive me, Marshal, but how can you know…"

Éomer's hard stare found him.

"I do not know. I believe. Perhaps it is time for that. Perhaps, what we need is faith. Nothing else worked in these past, dark days… And those among you who have ridden with me for these past years should remember what to make of my intuitions. You are all still here, alive… fighting… despite these being the darkest days the Mark has ever seen. Despite the many traps Saruman's beasts laid for us."

Silence spread as the riders contemplated his words.

"However, we must ride on, and so I have to cut this short. There is really only one question that matters, and to which you must find your own answer: after all these years that we've been riding together, after everything our éored's been through, and after all the blood that we spilled for each other just a few days ago… do you really think that I would ever do anything to bring damage to the Mark?"

His gaze travelled from face to face, all emotions out there for his riders to see and judge.

"It is my home. It is the land I love. The land I swore to protect for as long as there is a single drop of blood left in my veins, and breath left in my lungs. I will continue to fight until I can fight no more, and the measure I took earlier today is part of this fight. A desperate measure, I agree, but perhaps, the time for desperate measures has arrived. Make your decision, brothers, and live with the consequences."


Chapter 14: A Different Sort of Homecoming


It was already growing dark before Éomer's part of the éored arrived in Edoras. Trying to find the right balance between haste and the need to keep their senses together and their horses on their legs, they had been forced to make another, however short break along the way, but now, the City of Kings rose from the grass before them, illuminated by many watch fires along its mighty walls.

To Éomer, it looked forbidding. It was not a feeling he was accustomed to when it came to returning, but nonetheless, what had once been his home for the years of his youth until he had joined the Armed Forces, now appeared like a threatening fastness that had been closed against him and dared him to enter.

To his right, Éothain seemed to share his misgivings as he stared glumly into the semi-darkness beyond his horse's ears. The riders behind them were likewise silent, but of course, they were all also on their last legs. Beast and men had reached their limit, and yet the true challenge still lay before them. How well could they lie?

With a soundless sigh, Éomer urged Firefoot towards the gate, just as the alarm reached his ears. A moment later, the massive doors were opened from within.

"I will accompany you to Meduseld," Éothain said lowly as he directed Scatha alongside his friend's mighty grey stallion. "You should not go up there alone."

Éomer doubted that his friend would be allowed in, but he remained silent. Meanwhile they were close enough to make out the guards' faces on the wall, and he did not like what he read in them. Aye, the light was bad, but it did not look to him as if those men were happy – or at least relieved – to see them. They were looking down on their approaching éored with strangely guarded expressions that tied their marshal's stomach into even tighter knots.

"Something is wrong," Éothain mumbled beneath his breath, apparently having felt the strange mood, too. "Perhaps we should run…" This at last earned him Éomer's attention.

"We did nothing wrong, Éothain," he said with conviction. "It needed to be done. Now we only need to convince the King and the Royal Guard of it… against everything the Worm is going to throw at us."

"I do not like the way they're looking at us…"

"Who knows what they were told," Éomer replied. "Ignore them. We need to stay focussed."

They passed the gate to find an assembly of people waiting for them on the marketplace. There were no cheers, no shouts, and no cries of joy over their return. Instead, the people were staring at them in silence, and all of Éomer's instincts cried out at him to turn around and flee. With considerable effort, he strangled the life out of the impulse as the gate closed behind them, but there was something else now, too, that began to stir in the back of Éomer's mind; something more familiar than fear: a spark of rage against the injustice of what they were up against, a spark of defiance. Determination to emerge from this contest of wills as winner, and to rid their realm of the worst enemy it had ever faced. An enemy who divided them, who made them weak and powerless. An insult to the Mark and its people every second he held power over them.

It grew stronger and stronger, found its way into Éomer's body language and made him straighten in the saddle and square his shoulders, even against the massive exhaustion. It sped up his pulse and flooded his veins with adrenaline. It was battle readiness in the true sense of the word, and from the corners of his eyes, the son of Éomund could tell that his friend had noticed the change in his bearing, for there was suddenly the hint of a smile playing around Éothain's lips.


"You look… different all of a sudden."

Éomer returned the smile, deepening the one on Éothain's features.

"Just getting mentally ready to wipe the floor with our sorry excuse for a counsellor."

Éothain snorted.

"Now, that would be a sight for sore eyes! Count me in to do some of the wiping."

The smile slowly vanishing from his face, Éomer turned his attention back towards the crowd. He could see no guards yet, no one to arrest them. But of course, the Worm knew that the effort could be spared. His prey would come to him out of its own, free will. Oh yes, he would come. But who was prey and who the predator still remained open for discussion for the time being!

Turning Firefoot around, Éomer faced his remaining riders. They would not follow their commanders to the higher levels of the city, as the stables for the éoreds were on the ground level. He found himself looking into gloomy and doubtful miens and hoped to convey and to transfer some of his newly discovered fighting spirit to them.

"The Mark thanks you for your service. I thank you for your service… and your loyalty. To those of you who will ride with us to Westfold tomorrow: see that you get as much rest tonight as you can. We will leave at first light."

Not waiting to see his éored disperse, Éomer urged Firefoot towards the ascending path. He did not have to apply much pressure. The grey stallion knew where they were headed and mobilized the last of his energy to make for the royal stables, no doubt looking forward to a manger full of hay and apples and oats, and a good rubdown.

Éomer wished that he could have looked forward to what awaited him at the end of the path, as well, but as it seemed, the best he could do at present was to hold on to the sudden flash of energy and steel himself for the coming confrontation. He could only hope to be able to keep his temper in check against the Worm's hideous accusations. Gríma did not count, he was not important for the task he had set himself. He had to convince the others. Under no circumstances could he afford to undermine the sincerity of his claims by rising to the Worm's bait.

Never before had the path to the stables seemed so short to Éomund's son, when he beheld the beautifully ornamented building before them. A bit to the right and even higher up, Meduseld loomed in the growing darkness, awaiting them. Forcing him into a battle he was much less accustomed to than the one with sword, spear and bow. A battle that was second nature to his adversary. A battle he needed to win nonetheless.

As they approached, Éomer beheld Solgard and his stablehands outside, already expecting them. Even this spoke a clear language: he was expected in the Golden Hall at once. As much as he would have liked to tend Firefoot himself for the great deeds the stallion had committed over the last days, Éomer knew that he would not be allowed to take the time.

"Huh," Éothain made, bewildered. "They're making quite the fuss. As if an hour more or less would change anything."

"The Worm's way of ensuring we know who is in control," Éomer sneered, and brought Firefoot to a hold. From his elevated position, he stared down on the stablemaster, who was just now approaching him with visible tenseness. "Solgard! I suppose we are being summoned to Meduseld this very instant? Or why is everyone here waiting for us?"

The man returned his gaze unhappily.

"I apologise, Marshal. I was only told to expect you before the stables and take Firefoot into my custody. I do not know more." He furrowed his brow as he looked at Éothain. "Nothing was said about your horse, though, Captain."

"As I will be accompanying the Third Marshal, I would appreciate it if you could see to Scatha, too, Sir. He earned it."

Not waiting for the stablemaster's reply, Éothain dismounted, shortly followed by Éomer, and handed his reins over. With a last clap on his stallion's muscular neck, he turned to follow his marshal towards the stairs, his nerve endings vibrating with tension. There seemed to be a metal band around his chest all of a sudden, an immense weight that constricted his breathing. Soon they would know what all this was about, and if Éothain knew one thing, it was that they wouldn't like it.



"Wait, Uncle, let me help you with this."

Éowyn dropped to her knees and laced up Théoden's boots. She did not like the thought that he would have to go out there, to the throne room, in a matter of such heavy consequence, when he had not even fully recovered yet. Far from it. He still looked horribly pale and pasty to her eyes, and more often than not he did not react to her questions, as if he was not even hearing her. He needed support when walking, and his hands were still shaking from weakness.

"There now." She leant back and looked up into his tired face. "You are all set, Uncle."

The ghost of a smile played around the old man's mouth for a moment, before it vanished as quickly as it had occurred.

"Thank you, Éowyn… Set for what?"

For a moment, she could only stare.

"Éomer is on the way up the hill to give you his report."

"His report…?" It was another absent-minded question.

"His report about his ride north?" Éowyn helped, silently asking herself how in Béma's name the king was supposed to sit in judgement over his nephew when he did not even remember the most essential things. "His hunt for the orcs that had crossed into the Mark?"

"But wasn't he supposed to ride west?" Théoden mumbled, and she had to close her eyes. "´Théodred… wasn't he supposed to help him? But… but Théodred is… he is…"

"He is dead, Sire," Gríma Wormtongue's merciless voice reached them from the opened door, and Éowyn felt her uncle's twitch in painful reaction. "Killed by the orc scum in the long foreseen attack. Killed by your nephew through negligence as documented by the Lord of Westfold."

He stepped into the room, ignoring Éowyn's hate filled stare as she regained her feet and took position behind Théoden's armchair. She noticed that he carried a cup in his hands.

"And now he comes back to let you know about his triumph in the north. About his worthless victory, when – with this act of rebellion – he put your son in his grave. No matter what happens, my Lord, you should never forget this fact. Èomer, son of Éomund, is responsible for your son's death."

Éowyn's fingers dug deeply into the chair's leather in barely contained rage. How good it would feel if it were the Worm's neck instead. How good it would feel to unleash all her pent-up anger and frustration against her opponent! But what could she do in the present situation, where the Lord of Westfold's letter had effectively made a traitor out of her brother? What could she do, other than renew her threat and hope that the ill old man would remember it when the time for judgement came?

"What is this?" she asked with a curt nod towards the cup.

"A strengthening draught." Gríma met her suspicious gaze openly. "I'm sure you agree that the King won't be able to hold the hearing in his current condition without help."

Éowyn narrowed her eyes.

'What else did you put in there, Worm?' she asked silently, only by looking, and she was sure that her opponent understood. 'What did you concoct to bend him to your will again?'

Aloud she said: "Then why not postpone the hearing? There is no immediate need for urgency anymore. The battle in the west is over for now. Let us wait until the King has recuperated."

A nasty smirk appeared on Wormtongue's pale features.

"And let your traitorous brother run around free for a few more days? Give him more time to further advance his rebellion? If you wish for that, Lady Éowyn, I fear that I will have to reconsider the way I regard you. Perhaps, you do play a part in your brother's actions, after all. Perhaps, you are not as innocent as you would want us to believe. It certainly brings back that incident to my mind, the one where the Captain of the Royal Guard intervened and hindered me in the performance of my duties. It makes me wonder whose side you're really on."

Infuriated to the point where she was almost unable to answer, it took Éowyn a few long, deep breaths, until she could reply in a wavering, but icy voice: "I am on the side of the Mark, dearest councillor. I'm on the side of our people. But I'm not too sure about the side you are on, except for your own."

Wormtongue narrowed his eyes.

"You claim to have loved your cousin, my Lady. And yet you seem quite intent on not having the one mainly responsible for his death punished." He lowered his gaze to stare at the king.

"Do you not find this most peculiar, as well, Sire? That your niece keeps protecting Éomer even though his guilt has been proven?"

"Nothing has been proven!" Éowyn shouted. "Éomer would never have disobeyed his orders had it not been absolutely necessary! He loved Théodred like a brother, and I could see that it tore him apart not being able to ride to his aid when he stood before us! You must either be blind not to have seen that, or you did not want to see it!" She took a deep breath and stepped to the front of the chair to look her uncle in the eye. "Uncle, I beg you! Listen to what Éomer has to say with an open mind. Do not precondemn your nephew on the basis of a piece of writing that might not even be genuine!"

"You're getting desperate now, my Lady, aren't you?" Wormtongue's tone indicated that he was anything but amused. "To doubt a document hand-drafted by Erkenbrand of Westfold…"

"No one did actually see him write it, so as far as I'm concerned, I'm well within my rights to doubt it! *You* could have written it, for all I know! I wouldn't put it beyond you to forge his handwriting!"

With a dry, unamused laugh, Wormtongue extended his hand with the cup to Théoden.

"My Lady, I would love to continue this most interesting discussion, trust me, but now is not the time. Your brother will be here shortly, and yet we still need to restore the king to a condition that will enable him to follow the proceedings." He pressed the cup into Théoden's shaking hand. "Please, drink this, Sire. It will lend you strength. Strength that you are going to need."

"What would I do without you, Gríma?" the old man uttered in a feeble voice, and a deprecating stare found his niece. "Stop your bickering, Éowyn. It is not helpful in this situation."

With Wormtongue's guidance, he lifted the cup and drank, missing Éowyn's bitter stare.


Ascending the stairs before him, Éomer stared in the direction of the entrance to the Golden Hall, and found – unsurprisingly - that the staff there had been strengthened. Instead of the usual three guards, he now counted six fully armoured men, among them the massive Half-Dunlending he had seen in the Worm's service before. Éomer creased his brow. This whole setup was so obviously a trap that he needed to ask himself again whether it was not indeed smarter to turn around and follow his first impulse. To jump into Firefoot's saddle and make for the gate. But what then? It would be an admission of his guilt, and an acknowledgement of his wrongdoing. It would, indeed, make him look like a traitor to the people. Nothing would be won that way. No, he needed to succeed in convincing Gamling and Háma, and the Royal Guard, and – hopefully – Théoden-King, as well, that his course of action had prevented disaster for the Mark. There was no other option.

As he reached the terrace, Éomer braced himself for the confrontation, knowing Éothain close behind him. With long, purposeful strides, he approached Háma, who stared at him with a wary expression upon his weathered features, and granted him a curt nod as he came to a halt.

"Westu hál, Háma", he said. "We have come to give the King our report."

The older man returned his nod. He seemed extraordinarily tense when his gaze found Éothain. Neither had it escaped Éomer's attention that the other guards kept their hands upon the hilts of their swords. Interesting.

"I'm afraid that I cannot allow you in, Captain," he said. "The report is to be given by the marshal alone."

"And you know why, Háma!" Éothain's eyes were narrow slits. "What does your conscience say about what you are about to allow? Are you content?" He stopped when he felt Éomer's hand upon his arm.

"Peace, Éothain," his friend said. "Háma, son of Harlond has his orders. We are not in a position to question them. Neither is he. I thank you for your loyalty, but I intend to follow those orders." He turned his back to the guards and stared into his friend's face, lowering his voice. "Go, Éothain. It is no use. You are the commander of our éored now, at least until I have swayed the minds of those waiting inside. Keep them safe, and keep Éowyn safe. That is the best you can do for now. Apart from asking Béma to lend me a helping hand."

He saw protest in Éothain's eyes, and fear. Fear for him. It touched him, but he could not allow the accompanying feeling to blur his focus.

"Go, Éothain. We will put an end to this, I promise. The tide is turning. Be ready when it does."

"I will." Éothain's voice was thick with emotion when he grasped his friend's hand in the warrior greeting. "But you will return to us later tonight. I know it. Thus I will only say 'until later'." He gave Èomer's hand a firm squeeze… and turned briskly on his heels. A moment later, he was gone, and for the first time, Éomer felt utterly and truly alone. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, the son of Éomund turned back to the Captain of the Royal Guard.

"So… How shall we proceed?"

Háma shook his head and pointed his chin in the direction of Éomer's hip.

"Before I can let you enter, you will need to give me your sword, Marshal," he said. "I cannot let you before the King armed."

Éomer's eyebrows shot up, and he almost laughed. At the same time he noticed how the other guards stepped closer.

"Why? Because you fear that I would attack my uncle? You are joking, Háma, aren't you?" The man's expression told him that he wasn't, and with a heavy sigh, Éomer unfastened his scabbard and handed it over. "There now. I only ask that you keep it safe. I will hold you personally responsible if anyone else touches it." A meaningful glance found the huge halfbreed. "Is there anything else you want? Should I strip off my armour, too?"

The Captain of Guard narrowed his eyes, not amused.

"Only a few moments ago you told your captain that it is not our position to question the orders we were given, Marshal. Those were wise words. Did you decide otherwise now, to make this difficult, after all?"

For a moment, Éomer fought with his wildly bucking temper – 'It is not *you* they're asking to step into their trap almost naked!''You know this is wrong, and yet you do their bidding!' – until, with a deep breath, he suppressed the turmoil in his mind.

"I am here to give my report, Captain. As ordered..." he replied with sudden formality. Formality had been a useful instrument to rein in his temper in the past years, and Éomer decided that now was the time to resort to it again. 'Focus!' he scolded himself. 'Royal Guard or not, Háma is only a doorward. Don't waste your energy to bandy words with a heeler. Focus!'

"It is not my intention to make things more difficult than they have to be. But you've known me for most of my life, and that - after all those years - you would think me capable of attacking my own kin gives me pause." For a fleeting moment, he thought he saw a hint of shame in the older man's eyes. He did not know how to feel about this discovery. Encouraged, because there still seemed to be part of the old Háma, the Háma he knew, in the guard before him… or concerned, because the man's shame hinted at things to come. Things Háma son of Harlond was ashamed to be a part of.

"Unfortunately, what I think is of no concern, Lord Éomer." the guard surprised him, and, with a sinister side glance at the men around them, cleared his throat. "Very well, Marshal. Please, follow me insde." Turning around, Háma met Felrod's dark stare. "Open the door."


Author's Notes: So... here it is at last, one of the chapters I looked most forward to writing once this particular plot bunny had bitten me. I'm not sure what this says about me, but after a couple of days of contemplation how this hearing would go, it went very smoothly and quickly. I hope you will enjoy it, as well, even if it doesn't bring good news for the man we all love to read about...

Chapter 15: In the Lion's Den

When the doors were opened, Éowyn's heartbeat began to accelerate. She was standing right behind the throne, a little to the side, which was helpful as Wormtongue would not be able to see the expression on her face during the proceedings while he concerned himself with her brother. Her slender fingers were clenched around the throne's upper rim so tightly that her knuckles were white, giving her disposition away despite her desperate efforts to keep her emotions guarded. She could not help it. This was easily the worst situation she had ever found herself in, perhaps even worse than the death of their parents: Théoden so ill that he knew no longer what was happening, her cousin killed and her brother about to be sentenced to death for his doomed efforts of protecting their people... and with him, her last protector in these halls would be gone.

Desperately trying to contain her hatred for the man, Éowyn cast a brief glance at Gríma. Their adversary had taken up position on Théoden's right side, but in contrast to the usual display where he sat on the chair beside the king, he now stood on the highest of the three steps that lead up the dais, in an effort to look as imposing as possible. From the expectant posture of his body, Éowyn concluded that their adversary was, in fact, looking forward to the confrontation.

Of course – at long last, after all these years, he seemed to have everything he needed in his hands to dispose of his worst enemy. And still Éowyn hoped that her brother's report would smash the confident expression out of Gríma's face like a rock; that it would turn into a frowning grimace for everyone to witness.

As she watched Éomer approach through the corridor between the two lines of council members and royal guards, her heart went out to him. Although Éomer held himself proud and erect, his gaze confidently meeting those of the men around him neither in challenge nor in excuse as he passed them, and although his strides were firm and confident, she could sense his bone-deep exhaustion. And if she could sense it, then the Worm would smell it, as well. In that way, Gríma was like an experienced scavenger; a beast that finds the one animal in a herd that is sick and too weak to repel it. How he disgusted her!

Her brother looked gaunt, there were bruises on his face and dark circles beneath his eyes, and it was clear to Éowyn that only his iron will and determination still kept him on his feet. She prayed that the others wouldn't misread his proud bearing as challenge, although they had to know him well enough to know better. But then again, why were they here, if not to condemn him?

'I am here for you, brother' she thought, hoping that somehow, Éomer would sense what she wanted him to know. 'I am here, and I will help you any way that I can!'

With a deep breath, Éowyn straightened behind the throne. No weakness could be shown to the enemy, and if, by her mere presence, she could transfer some of her energy to Éomer, she would try to. She laid it all into her gaze as she meet her brother's eyes.


His steps reverberated heavily in the leaden silence. It fit the gloomy atmosphere of the flickering torchlight, and, despite his determination to stay strong, Éomer could not shake a feeling of foreboding as he walked through the narrow corridor between the people he had known for most of his life. Their silence was stifling, and even though he made it a point of looking each and every one of them in the eye as he passed them, not in challenge but in confirmation that he was still the man they knew, that nothing had changed and that most certainly, he did not have a secret agenda as the Worm had no doubt tried to convince them, their responses worried him.

Their eyes were cold, questioning. Suspicious. There was none of the familiarity he was accustomed to, no sense of a 'benefit of a doubt in an unclear situation' for a man they had known for many years, and it set off an army of ants in Éomer's stomach. The last man he passed on his way to the dais was Gamling, and even his mien was strangely guarded as they regarded each other for a moment. Creasing his brow in a silent question – 'It is I. You have known me all my life. How can you doubt me now?' – Éomer realised that this situation pained the old warrior no less than him, and his blood became ice water. 'Something happened, and the Worm turned them all against me. Béma…'

With a deep breath, Éomer turned his attention to the dais at last. Naturally, his eyes found his sister first, and her appearance only increased his worry. Éowyn looked even paler than usual, her eyes huge in her almost translucent face, and there were distinctive dark shadows beneath them telling of sleepless nights. Sleepless nights because of worrying for him while he was out there, or were there other reasons? The smallest encouraging smile seemed to play at the corners of her mouth now that she met his gaze, and yet it did not reach her eyes.

Sitting slumped on his throne, Théoden-King looked even worse than he had when they had left Edoras, and barely seemed to have the strength to remain upright. His skin looked pasty and colourless, and his gaze, Éomer found as he approached, was unfocussed. Was he even aware of what was happening? Or was he only a mindless puppet the Worm had somehow enabled to partake in these proceedings, because he needed him to confirm the judgement he had already passed in his mind?

'Focus! Focus! Focus!' he berated himself as he advanced the last steps and then kneeled before the throne, deliberately ignoring Gríma until he would have to concern himself with him.

"Sire, Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of the Mark, has come to give you his report," Háma's voice could be heard from the side, where the warrior had taken up position, and with a rustle of clothes, Wormtongue stepped before him.

"Rise, Éomer son of Éomund," he said in a loud, cold voice, and Éomer followed his order, for the first time looking his adversary straight in the face. "Tell us what you found in Westfold."

A bitter smirk tugged at the corners of Éomer's mouth. 'Aye, Worm, forcing me to admit it myself, aren't you? As if you didn't know…'

"We did not make for Westfold," he confessed evenly, his gaze never leaving Gríma's pale face. A silent battle of wills in addition to the one they fought with words. "As you are no doubt aware of."

"Indeed I am." Wormtongue folded his hands and allowed his gaze to briefly travel over the assembled crowd in the hall, before it returned to the warrior before him. "So just for protocol's sake, please do tell us where you took your éored instead."

Éomer turned to the King, but could not for the life of him determine whether his uncle was even hearing him, much less whether he understood what was being said.

"Sire, I understand that this might be difficult to understand, but despite your order to make for Westfold, we rode north to the Entwood. I regret very much having been forced to make that difficult choice, but the situation there was too dangerous not to concern ourselves with."

An audible gasp rose from the crowd, muffled muttering. Wormtongue narrowed his eyes.

"I see, Marshal. You seem to think that you are authorized to make these decisions even against your ruler's orders. Alas, I heard that this was, in fact, not the first time you chose to ignore them. Actually, my sources say that you are rather notorious among our forces for that."

Éomer turned around to face the men behind him. He had to make them understand.

"Alas, Councillor Gríma, it is a reality that the situation in the field often differs from the scouts' reports. There is often a delay in receiving their reports and our arrival at the location, and in the meantime, situations have sometimes changed to the point where an entirely different approach is necessary. Those of you who rode with the Armed Forces once may understand of what I am speaking." Were there affirmative nods among the council members or was he imagining them? It was too dark to determine in the flickering torchlight. Éomer's gaze found Gamling. "In fact, the Prince himself often changed a strategy that had been discussed priorly to adept to a changed situation he found upon arrival. It is simply a necessity in order to survive."

"But Prince Théodred is your commander, Marshal," Wormtongue said. "He is, in fact, the second-powerful man in the Mark after the King. He is authorized to make those adjustments, whereas you-"

Éomer turned on his heels and lifted his chin in defiance.

"I am the Third Marshal of Riddermark, Councellor. I am the third most powerful man in the Mark, right after my cousin. In the Eastmark, my ward, I am the highest commander, and I was officially appointed to this position by the council members, who – as I see – are all present here. I'm certain it is known, but for protocol's sake, let me repeat it: my position specifically calls for decision making and evaluation of each given situation. My main concern is to prevent disaster from the Mark and her people, which includes the eventual alteration of plans to meet the needs of changed situations. Which is what I did in this case, as well. It is what is expected of me in my position. I cannot believe that I should have to explain it."

"Oh, but this is a very different case, Marshal," Gríma sneered. "In this case, the Second Marshal – your commander – summoned you to strengthen his forces for an attack that was only a matter of time. And then your king specifically gave you the order to make for Westfold. He even repeated it when you questioned it before you left, and stressed its importance. You disobeyed both… and instead, took your riders to check out a report that was, at that moment, of far lesser priority."

Éomer squared his shoulders. So, the battle was on. He had to win it.

"Alas, the Second Marshal had no knowledge of that report. And once he hears my reasons, Théodred will understand, because it would have concerned him, as well. In fact, once I have given you my report, I am certain that all present in this hall will understand that my decision was justified and necessary." Again, Éomer addressed the listening men directly before he turned back. "Will you let me explain now what we found in the north, Councellor Gríma? Otherwise, I fear that these proceedings are entirely pointless."

With a slightly derogatory expression upon his face to indicate to the council members how trivial he deemed this information, Grima motioned him to go on.

"It will not change the fact that you disobeyed your commanders' orders, but for protocol's sake, please do. I do not want it said afterwards that the Third Marshal of Riddermark was not given a fair trial."

'A trial? Is this already a trial?'

Swallowing the sharp reply that lay on the tip of his tongue, Éomer recounted the happenings of their days of pursuit in a calm, but nonetheless intense tone. At first, he addressed Théoden.

"After leaving Edoras, we rode through the night to intercept those orcs my scout had warned us of. We came upon them shortly before nightfall on the following day and encircled them to wait for daylight. It was a great group, well over two hundred strong, made of Uruks of the White Hand and Mordor orcs. They had travelled with previously unknown speed and endurance, which seemed to point at the importance of their undertaking."

"Which was?" the Worm interrupted him with raised eyebrows, but Éomer paid him no heed.

"After nightfall, we were attacked by a second group that came out of the Entwood, again over fifty strong and wearing the White Hand upon their brows. They tried to merge with the other group, but we kept them separate and put an end to them shortly afterwards. At dawn, we attacked and killed all who had survived the night. We piled their carcasses and burned them, and we buried our dead, before—"

"So there were casualties amongst your riders?" Wormtongue dug in, and reluctantly, Éomer turned back to face him. "Did I hear that right?"

"Alas, there were. The orcs outnumbered us two to one. It is a rare thing to do battle with such a great group of enemies and emerge without losses. Every commander in the field will tell you as much."

"How many riders did you lose?"

Éomer cast down his eyes, for a moment seeing before his inner eye his riders arranged in the long hole the others had dug to bury them. He swallowed and lowered his voice.

"Fifteen riders, unfortunately. And twelve horses."

The Worm narrowed his eyes.

"I see. Fifteen men died needlessly, so that you could have your revenge on those orcs."


Somewhere in the back of his mind, his temper tested the chains he had put on on it, and made him clench his teeth. In order to stay in control, Éomer once again turned away from his inquisitor and towards the listening crowd. There were men among them who had served in the Armed Forces once, he knew it, and he needed to convince them now against Gríma's accusations.

"Can you even conceive what a group this great would do to an unsuspecting, unprotected settlement? Gentlemen?" He approached the waiting men and impaled them with his intense gaze. "There would have been nothing left of it. They would have razed each village they came upon utterly to the ground, even more since all settlements in the Westemnet and Westfold deployed their forces to the Fords. They were wide open and vulnerable to an attack. It would have been a massacre. My men understood this threat, and they died in service to the Mark and its people. They fulfilled the oath all members of the Armed Forces have taken."

"And yet there are no settlements anywhere near where you claim to have intercepted those orcs!" Wormtongue raised his voice. "Not for many leagues! No settlements, and no herds either, according to your own words."

Éomer whirled around.

"And you would have guaranteed that they stayed on this course?" he snapped, despite his resolution to stay calm. "You knew this… how?"

'Because your master told you, Worm! Because Saruman told you to keep me out of their path at all costs, because they had something that he wanted!'

It took all of Éomer's self-restraint not to shout his accusations into his adversary's face, but it seemed to him as if Gríma read them in his eyes anyway, because suddenly, his tone intensified.

"Is there anything you want to add, Marshal?" the Worm said in a dangerously low voice. "Please, do continue. We are all listening."

'He wants to lure you into his trap! Focus!'

Exhaling, Éomer counted to five before he resumed. Even then, his voice sounded strained, but he had the distinctive feeling that at last, he was getting through to the others.

"Like I said, there were no guarantees for those orcs to stay on their course through the northern territories. They could have easily travelled that way to avoid protection, and then turned south once they reached Westfold to destroy all settlements in their way and attack the Prince from behind. Théodred would have been caught between the hammer and the anvil, and no doubt would you have found a way then to lay our people's corpses on my doorstep! But now, they are destroyed, and half of my éored is already on the way to the fords. And tomorrow at first light, the rest of them are going to follow… minus the ones I'm leaving for the protection of the city."

He did not like the expression on Wormtongue's face in reply to his words. Not at all.

"Oh, don't bother," the Worm said with a throwaway gesture. Éomer's eyes became narrow slits.


"Don't bother riding west. It is no longer necessary."

His words stole Éomer's breath.


"Because the attack has already been repelled. The orc army was thrown back, thanks to your cousin. Not thanks to you."

Caught between anger and relief, Éomer did not know what to say. The attack had been repelled! That was good news, wasn't it? Only why then did he have the distinct feeling that he was missing something vital? A feeling that was strengthened when he cast a sidelong glance up to Éowyn. She did not look relieved. And while it could have been the bad light, Éomer was alarmed to suddenly detect a moist sparkle in his sister's eyes. What had happened?

"So, was there anything else about your ride north?" Wormtongue asked into the leaden silence. "Anything noteworthy? You killed all orcs, buried your riders and returned straight away? Is that it?"

"Aye." Éomer's attention was still with Éowyn, more worried than ever. Something was not right here. "What happened at the fords?" Was she crying? She was crying! Silently, but those were tears upon her face! When he faced Gríma again, he all but screamed: "What happened?"

The Worm remained calm as he lifted his chin, seemingly looking down on his adversary although he was a head shorter.

"What I told you: the orcs were defeated. Our riders threw them back over the Isen, at great cost of life… Which might not have been quite as great had their forces been stronger, but let's no longer talk about that. Marshal Erkenbrand wrote as much in his report. He was… surprised by your non-appearance, to put it mildly. But thankfully, your cousin stepped up… and the Lord of Westfold. And Grimbold. And Elfhelm. Everyone but you."

But Éomer neither saw nor heard him. He was looking at Éowyn again, and his heartbeat accelerated with abyssmal dread. There was only Éowyn now, and that expression of grief that was deeply engraved into her delicate features.

"Théodred?" he asked lowly, suddenly bereft of breath. Afraid to ask, but he had to know. It could not be. It could not be! But it was the truth, he understood even before his sister slowly shook her head, and the silent flow of her tears intensified, and realisation punched him in the chest like a war-hammer. "No…" He sank to his knees, all the strength, all the willpower that had kept him on his feet so far suddenly fleeing his body. "No!"

"Yes," his adversary replied mercilessly, his voice cold, and his pale eyes pinning the son of Éomund like an insect. The moment had come at last to seize victory. "Yes, Éomer, Third Marshal of Riddermark, it is time to face the grim reality: your disobedience brought your cousin to his grave. Théodred was hewn by the attackers in fulfilment of his duty. He died, because the reinforcements he had summoned did not arrive. He died, because his cousin, despite always claiming how close they were, thought that going orc-hunting in the north was more important than the protection of the fords… You betrayed the man you claimed to love like a brother."

Éomer did not even hear him. Wormtongue's voice was background noise beneath the sudden droning in his head, and before his inner eye, Théodred's face appeared as it had in his dream: eyes widened in dismay as his cousin thrust his sword through his chest. Blood spattering down his chin as his knees buckled and he collapsed.

'Oh Béma, I killed him! I killed Théodred! It wasn't only a dream!''

Somehow, he had already known then. The dream had not been born from worry; it had been born from knowledge. From a sudden void within him that had opened when his cousin died. It had become reality.

He did not even feel it when suddenly, his shoulders were grabbed, and he was pulled into a tight embrace.


Éowyn could no longer stand by and watch how the Worm tortured her brother. Before she was even aware of it herself, she had left her place behind the throne and kneeled down beside Éomer, wrapping her arms around him to somehow shield him from his tormentor's wrath. She did not think about it, nor about possible consequences. It was an impulse, too strong to resist. She was too fast for Wormtongue to stop her, and when he started to protest, she shut him out of her awareness. It was Éomer who mattered now, and only Éomer.

"I am here, brother," she whispered urgently, hoping to reach him in the pit of his bottomless despair. "I am with you. I know you did not want for this to happen. And Théodred would have understood your decision. He would have told you to ride north. I know this. It was not your fault!"

Her embrace was returned now with desperate intensity. Éomer almost crushed her, and yet she did not complain. He needed her now, more than ever.

"Lady Éowyn," Wormtongue's resentful voice at last reached her ears, and from his impatient tone, she concluded that he had already addressed her several times. "You are, of course, aware that the man in your arms is responsible for your cousin's death, aren't you? And still you are there with him on your knees, comforting him? What are we to think about that?"

Éowyn lifted her tear-streaked face, and despite the wetness on her checks, the expression in her blue eyes was hard as steel as she fixed them against their opponent.

"You did not listen, Counsellor," she replied, fighting to keep the trembling out of her voice. "My brother just explained why he made that choice, and his reasoning is sound. No matter what accusations you want to throw at my brother's feet, they don't stick!" She turned her head to address the council members, her gaze coming to rest on Gamling's face.

'You wanted to see Éomer's reaction to Théodred's death, Lord Gamling. What do you say now? Is this convincing for you? Or do you feel that his grief is feigned?'

"My Lords, honoured members of the Council… several of you rode with our Armed Forces once. What is your verdict? Standing before the choice between two evils, which one would you have made? You have known my brother for years; you have seen him together with the Prince countless times! How can you even begin to think that his death is what Éomer wanted? My brother is known for never lying, and now look at him and tell me that you think indeed that his grief is fake!"

"Éowyn," a weak voice behind her called, and she turned around, surprised to hear it. "You are wrong."Théoden was crying, as well, but the expression in his milky eyes was not forgiving as he regarded his nephew. "Get away from him. He does not deserve your pity."

For the longest moment, Éowyn could only stare at her uncle, her head empty.

"How can you believe this, Uncle?" she finally replied, not letting go of Éomer. "You have seen them together all your life. If you doubt Éomer now, clearly it must be the effect of…"

'…foul play', she had meant to say, but stopped herself at the last moment. How could she help Éomer best? By attacking the Worm publicly and repeating all the accusations her brother had fruitlessly voiced for many years? That way, she would leave their opponent no choice but to incarcerate her along with him, rendering her unable to help.

"The effect of what?" Wormtongue asked, and Béma forbid, there was something like horrible amusement written into his pale features. He was trying to bait her, but suddenly, his attention was taken from her. The massive halfbreed, who had silently stood at the end of the dais so far, hands on the hilt of his sword, suddenly appeared behind his master's shoulder to whisper conspiratorially into his ear. In reaction to his words, Wormtongue directed his gaze over to the shadows behind the column closest to his private chambers.

Following his gaze, Éowyn beheld a dark silhouette standing there. There was confused muttering in the crowd at the sudden interruption. Wormtongue lifted his hand.

"Forgive me, my lords. It seems that something came up that requires my immediate attention. Please excuse me for a moment, I will be right back." And with swift strides, he left the dais to make for the man in the shadows.

Narrowing her eyes in suspicion, Éowyn followed his path until darkness swallowed him, before she directed her attention back at the man on the throne. Yet Théoden seemed to have sunken back into the same apathy he had displayed for most for the hearing, and she was glad to concern herself with her brother again.

Éomer was still shaking with silent, only half-suppressed sobs, and his tears had drenched the thin cloth on her shoulder.

"I did not want for this to happen, Éowyn," he whispered into her ear with shaking voice, and the obvious pain in it broke her heart. "I swear in on my life! But what was I to do? How could I have chosen differently?"

"Hush, brother," she made, stroking his head. "You do not have to tell me that. I know. And they know, too, or I lost my ability to read people." She looked up and looked eyes with Gamling again, and what she saw there gave her hope. The Captain of the Royal Guard seemed shaken… and was that compassion she discovered in his eyes?

"I saw Théodred's death in a dream," Éomer confessed. "On the way back. It was the worst dream I ever had. I've had nightmares before, but this one, it…"

"It felt real?" she ended his sentence for him and felt him slightly nod against her shoulder. "I'm not surprised. The two of you were so close, it seems only logical that one would feel when something happened to the other."

"In my dream… I was the one who killed him." Éomer's throat tightened at the memory. "I stabbed him through the chest. I was in a battle, and someone came up from behind and grabbed my shoulder, and I… I did not pause to see who it was. I thought it was another orc, and … and I spun around and impaled him… and it was Théodred."

"Shhhh… It is not what happened, Éomer," Éowyn soothed. "You did not kill him, nor are you responsible for his death. We are at war, brother. People die in wars, especially the warriors fighting it. You did what was necessary, you had no choice. Théodred would have understood. And Uncle would understand, were he free of the Worm's poison."

From the corners of her eyes, Éowyn detected movement in the far shadows of the hall. Gríma was on his way back. She could not help tensing at the thought of what it might have been that had requested his immediate attention. Was there an orc army headed for Edoras? That it was a matter of import was beyond question, for his whole body language had changed as he ascended the stairs again… and when the stare of his pale eyes pinned her again, Éowyn knew that something horrible was about to happen.


She felt her brother move, and together, they rose to their feet, defiantly – and anxiously – returning the Worm's stare.

"I must ask you once again to step back now, my Lady," Wormtongue said in a tone that was not a polite question at all. It was an order, and something in her body wanted to instinctively follow the command. Only at the last moment, she held on to Éomer's hand and lifted her chin, daring her adversary to separate them by force. Behind Gríma, she suddenly beheld guards. Felrod's men, not the Royal Guard. Béma, what was going on? All of a sudden, she felt deathly afraid for her brother.

"I will not say it again!" Gríma raised his voice. "Step back, daughter of Éomund!"

Éomer, too, had noticed the change of atmosphere in the room, even caught up in his grief for his cousin. Wiping the tears away, he righted himself and squared his shoulders, determined to face whatever was coming his way with pride and dignity.

"Go, Éowyn."

"Éomer, no…" Éowyn whispered as he lifted the hand she held and laid his left on top of it, squeezing her fingers in affirmation.

"It is good, Éowyn," he said, feeling a strange calm take hold over him. Because what could be worse than his cousin's death? Nothing. "Do as he says." Once more, he squeezed her fingers… and then he let go of her.

Reluctantly, Éowyn followed his example and stepped backwards until she felt the hard barrier of the throne behind her. Théoden-King still sat there, silently observing. Or was he? She could not be sure. He did not even react to her doubtful side-glance.

"Èomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of the Mark," Gríma began, and his formality did not bode well. "Only moments ago, your sister claimed that you were a man who never lied. Do you stand by that?"

"Why wouldn't I?" Éomer answered, and his voice sounded firm. No more trace of trembling to detect in it. Éowyn's heart went out to him. Béma, he looked so brave and lonely in the focus of his enemy, the man who had sworn to destroy him. Gravely wounded, yes, but determined to defend himself with everything he had all the way to the end.

"That is good." A nasty smirk played around the corners of the Worm's mouth, and victory flashed in his pale eyes. "Then pray tell, when were you planning to tell us of the three strangers you encountered on the plains?"


Chapter 16: Battle of Wills

For the longest time, Éomer could only stare back, and he heard the confused mutterings of the crowd behind him.

They told him! They betrayed me!'

He saw the triumph in his adversary's eyes, diabolical joy over finally having him where Gríma had wanted him for all these past years.

With a smug smile in the corners of his mouth, the Worm leant closer.

„Well, son of Éomund? Are you going to say something, or shall I continue?" After a lengthy pause, during which Éomer could still not think of anything to say, Wormtongue turned to address the listening crowd. „Apparently, this group consisted of a man, an elf and a dwarf. Hardly an ordinary group to meet in the Mark by any standards; much less so these days. And yet our dear marshal left them out of his report. And not because he deemed them not noteworthy. Oh no, quite the contrary!"

Slowly descending the three steps, Gríma made it a show to approach the dismayed and shocked guards and council members. His hands were full, and there was no doubt that he was enjoying himself immensely.

„In fact, it seems that Éomer son of Éomund had met long-known aquaintances, because he took pains to send his éored away to wait for him on the path, while he had a rather amiable conversation with those three ‚strangers'. Obviously, he did not want to be overheard. At least that is what his riders say. Do you deny it, son of Éomund?" He turned around.

Somewhere in his state of shock, Éomer was aware that everone was staring at him with newly awakened suspicion… and dismay… and sadness. He met Éowyn's eyes, and read in them the same shock that he felt. And when his glance sank to where the king sat slumped on his throne, he found with alarm that the old man was staring at him with undisguised disdain. Somewhere in the back of his mind, something clicked. There was but one strategy left to him now.

„I don't," he stated in a voice that utterly defied his inner turmoil, surprising even himself. He lifted his chin in defiance.

Gríma nodded.

„I see. Then certainly, you will also not deny that you lent them your spare horses, for whatever dubious reasons."

„I won't, except that it wasn't for a dubious reason."

Béma, how they were looking at him! As if he had drawn a dagger and held it to the King's neck! Even Gamling stared at him as if he was seeing him for the first time. As if all those years he had watched him growing up underneath this very roof counted for nothing.

„Very well…" Wormtongue resumed his pacing, again rather speaking to the crowd than to the warrior he was accusing. „So, you gave those three our valuable horses, much to the confusion of your riders… and you allowed them to continue on their path. Thus violating one of our most important laws. To apprehend-"

„…all travellers in the Mark and bring them before the king." Éomer interrupted him. „Aye. I am aware of that law." Eyes were narrowed at him in alarm and consternation. This was not going well.

Gríma nodded again, apparently surprised by his enemy's bluntness.

„I see that your sister did not lie. You are indeed a very honest man, Marshal… even though you must be aware of the fact that you are digging your own grave with your words right now."

A thin smile appeared suddenly on Éomer's face. It held the merest hint of a threat, and Éomund's son was certain that his adverary was picking up on its meaning. Shock gave way to clarity and adrenaline flooded his veins. This was his last chance. If he did not convince them now, he would dangle from the gallows in no time.

Wormtongue studied his expression, and for a moment, he seemed as confused as the others, not understanding where Éomer was getting with this. When the warrior remained silent, however, he continued.

„As you have been so very accommodating so far, my lord, I suppose you won't mind telling us what you said to your riders, before you sent half of your éored away to make for Westfold?"

„Not at all, Counsellor," Éomer answered, and his smile deepened, the menace in it now clearly visible to everyone in the room. „I told them that I helped these strangers, because I had a feeling that they might make a difference in the fate of the Mark. That I had the feeling that they would be the key to your undoing, and to the restauration of Théoden-King as ruler of our people." With piercing intensity, he stabbed his eyes against Gríma's and lifted his hand, pointing at his opponent as he raised his voice. „Because it is you who is the traitor, Worm!"

Aghast faces stared back at him. There were shouts and gasps, and at the edge of his awareness, Éomer also noticed the sound of swords being drawn from their scabbards as he descended the dais with long, fast strides.

„You all know it!" he continued, paying no heed to what was going on behind him. Only the men of the Royal Guard counted now, and the members of their council. „You said so yourself for years! You often did not understand King Théoden's orders, and you were suspicious of the potions this man gave him! Many among you suspected that it was not the Mark Gríma son of Galmod served! And you were right!"

„Silence, Marshal, or your lying tongue will be cut from your mouth before we hang you!" Gríma shouted, hastily backing away from the powerful warrior. „Felrod! Grab him!"

„The Prince died in result of his plot!" Éomer drowned him out. „It was his plan to keep me away from Westfold for the attack, to murder the king's son and lay his corpse at my feet! He thought that with this one strike, he could dispose of the both of us. But he is wrong, and the Mark suffered long enough from his real master's secret reign! We're seeing through him, at long last!"


A death threat stood written in Éomer's eyes now as he stepped toward his opponent.

„Say his name, Worm! It is Saruman you serve!" From the corners of his eyes, he saw the big halfbreed storm toward him, followed by the rest of Gríma's private guards. With an expression of utmost urgency upon his face, he once again turned to the aghast crowd.

„What is it you're waiting for? What are you afraid of? It is not I who is the enemy! Kill him and put an end to this farce!" he shouted right into Gamling's face.

For the eternity of five heartbeats, the two warriors regarded each other, and in the old man's eyes, Éomer read all he needed to know.

I cannot do this. I want to, but I cannot.'

Felrod was almost upon him now, big hands grabbing for him. His eyes narrowing in disgust, Éomer broke away – towards Gríma.

They will kill me for this, but it must be done!'

Before his adversary could hide in the crowd, he was upon him, and his arm closed like a bear trap around the counsellor's scrawny neck. A strangled yelp escaped Gríma's mouth as he was dashed against the nearest pillar with such force that Éomer felt the impact even through his armour.

„Now you die, Worm!" he growled and flexed his muscles with all the force he had left. The pale face before him turned blue, eyes bulging in shock.

The concussion of heavy steps behind him.

Not fast enough! '

Once again, he smashed Gríma against the hard wood, hoping to snap his neck – when a comet exploded in his vision and his teeth were knocked together with such force that he bit through his lip. As Éomer staggered to the side, the ground tilted beneath his feet and he crashed with his shoulder against the pillar. Instinctively, he tried to hold on, to remain on his feet.

From somewhere behind him, from the distance of another reality, an anguished „No!" reached his ears. A second hard blow to the head ended his struggle, and darkness claimed him before the son of Éomund hit the ground.


„No!" Éowyn started down the stairs, horrified as she saw her brother stumble. „No! Éomer!"

„My lady, don't!"

Someone grabbed her arm and pulled her back, and before she could even think about it, her hand landed with a sharp slapping sound in her assailant's face. A familiar face. Háma's face. For a moment she could only stare at the Chief of the Royal Guard.

„My lady, please! Don't make it worse!"

Don't make it worse?" She fought for breath and her composure. „How could I make this possibly any worse? They are killing my brother! Háma!" But even though the guard's broad face was apologetic, his fingers remained firmly closed around her arm, no matter how much she fought him. „Háma, let me go!"

At the pillar, the big halfbreed helped his master to his feet. The Worm looked as if he still couldn't breathe, and Éowyn sent a heartfelt prayer to Béma to keep it that way. Perhaps, Éomer had bruised his throat so badly that he would asphyxiate, after all! Then her view of the scene was cut off by the crowd. Again she tried to break free, and again, the Chief of the Royal Guard hindered her with a sad shake of his head.

„My lady, please. You can't change what's happening now. It is best you stay away."

Why can't I change it?" she snapped. „Or, better asked, why can't you change it? You and the Royal Guard? You heard what Éomer said, and you said so yourself many times! You know it is the truth! Cut off the Worm's head and we're free from him!"

„Do not utter this aloud", Háma hissed, shock and urgency in his eyes. „I implore you! Or do you want to share your brother's punishment?"

Éowyn narrowed her eyes, contempt sparkling in their deep blue irises.

„There would be no punishment for Éomer if we all acted as one! What is it that everybody is so afraid of? You are all like the rabbit before the snake!"

A rising din of voices stole her attention for a moment, and through a brief gap in the crowd, she saw her brother hang lifelessly between two of the Worm's men.


„It's best that you don't see this, my lady," Háma insisted, and despite his apologetic tone, there was a new firmness to his words now, as well. „Let me guide you to your chambers." It was not a plea, not a suggestion, nor an excuse. He meant to lock her into her rooms like a disobedient child.

„You cannot mean this!" Éowyn fumed as she felt herself being gently, but insistently dragged toward the far side of the hall. „We grew up right beneath your eyes! How can you betray us so?" She could see that her words pained him, but obviously, they did not pain him enough.

„First and foremost, we are the King's guard, my lady," Háma offered by way of an explanation. „Now look at Théoden-King and tell me that what's happening is not what he wants."

Éowyn looked back… and the sight of grim satisfaction on her uncle's face punched the air out of her lungs. For a moment, she gave up all resistance. Only when they reached the door to her chambers some weak reply came to her.

„He is not himself, Háma. You know that... and you know why."

With great sadness in his eyes, the big guard nodded.

„Alas, I'm afraid you are right. And yet the facts remain: your brother disobeyed his orders, he violated our laws… and just now he assaulted the counsellor. I cannot disregard this."

Éowyn swallowed.

„And what if the only way to rescue our people lies in violating those laws that help our enemy? Have you given this some though, Háma son of Harlond?" His frown told her that he hadn't. She nodded and opened the door to her chambers, casting the guard a last, meaningful look. „Perhaps you should. It is not too late yet."

And with that, she left him standing and closed the door into his face.


Darkness, then flickering light. Then darkness again. Muffled noises and muttering all around him, beneath a steady buzzing sound in his ears. The sensation of a red-glowing sword having been rammed straight through the top of his skull and sitting there now, sending waves upon waves of excruciating pain through what little of his awareness had returned.

A soft groan escaped Éomer as he felt the ground move beneath his dangling feet. He was being dragged. A voice close by, familar, even though it, too, sounded racked with pain.

„—last cell. Put him in chains." Coughing, a wincing sound.



„Punish him. But don't mar his face." Heavy, pain-filled breathing. „And no broken bones. Can' t-" Coughing. „Can't risk to aggravate them when they see him in the trial." Another extensive coughing fit, interspersed with painful little gasps.

Die, Worm…'

„Should we wait for you, Master?" The Halfbreeds deep, rumbling voice. „Do you want to watch?"

The anguished groan of rusty hinges, assaulting his ears like a pair of long, thin needles. Piercing his brain.


„Can't." Coughing. „First… I got… things to do. Proceed. I will see him later." Steps, leading away.

„Well, come on, then. Let's bring him down to his new home. How I'm looking forward to beating the bloody crap out of this forgoil bastard!"

Down the staircase, their steps reverberating in the bare, hollow stone corridors. Suddenly, the feeling of flying… and a painful landing on the hard ground. A grunt Éomer could not suppress.

„Whoops", Feldrod laughed. „Lost my grip somehow."

More laughter. The sensation of his stomach turning as he was picked up again. Nausea. He retched… and was dropped again with a guttural curse.

„Fuck! My boots!" A kick found his kidneys. Grumbling, then the rustle of clothes."Damn. Now look at this!" Hot breath in his right ear. „You will suffer for this, forgoil bastard. Do you hear me? That's a promise!"

Being dragged again, only this time, by his feet. Intolerable pain shooting through his head as it collided with the uneven stone floor again and again. Darkness again, tightening around him, the drowning in his ears intensiving to a mad crescendo.

Please…no more…'

But unconsciousness did not come. Just when Éomer felt the rest of his awareness starting to slip away from him, the torture stopped. Again, the screeching of rusty hinges, then he was all but thrown in the cell. A dubious voice on his left side.

„He is barely awake. Makes no sense yet to hurt him further. He'll faint right away."

„We'll see," Felrod grumbled, and roughly, Éomer was turned on his stomach. With the creaking of leather, the big halfbreed knelt down beside him and began to fiddle with the buckles and straps of his armour. „Help me with this, will you? I want him shackled before he wakes…"

Still afraid of me, aren't you?'

It was a good thought, the first clear thought he'd had in a while. Did this mean he was waking? He did not want to. Nothing good could come from that.

For a while, he was being turned this way and that, as they fought with his cuirass, pauldrons and mail shirt, under occasional muttered, Dunlendish cursing. To his dismay, Éomer found that he was indeed rising from the depths of semi-consciousness. With all distinctiveness, he could feel the coldness and the rough texture of the stone floor pressing against his face, and another sharp pain in his mouth. His probing tongue found the ripped flesh of the holes in his lower lip, filling his mouth with the taste of iron.

„Now lift him up. Come on!" With a metallic rustle, his mail cluttered to the ground. „Good. That's it. Although… wait."

A slicing, ripping sensation, and suddenly, a cold draft hit Éomer's bare skin as his tunic and shirt were cut away.

„That's better. There's not a lot of light down here. Got to see what I'm doing."

Dirty laughter rose that woke the intense desire in Éomer to smash his assailants' teeth in, and if it was the last thing he'd be doing in this realm. He opened his eyes. Everything was blurred, shadows dancing with the unbearably bright torchlight. There were no definite shapes and only vague colours.

„Forgoil opened his eyes. Felrod?"

„I'm done. Let's get the cuffs on him."

Éomer's arms were grabbed and pulled over his head, and he was turned on his back. A moment later, he felt the coldness of iron on his skin… and heard the clack of locks as the handcuffs were fastened tightly around his wrists.

„Still afraid of me?" he managed to mumble… and he was heard.

„Shit, afraid of you, bastard?" Felrod broke out in laughter. „Hell no. You should see yourself. You're a mess. A five-year-old could beat the crap out of you right now." With a jolt, he pulled on the chain, and Éomer's arms were lifted into the air. Another quick whisper. „You will find that I'm no five-year-old, though. Hell, I'm going to enjoy this! Gotta thank you for attacking the Counsellor. He might not have ordered this otherwise."

Another sudden jolt lifted Éomer's entire upper body.

„Damn, bastard's heavy. Dôrlak, Gúthlaf, help me!"

With combined effort, they hoisted him up into the air, and the handcuffs began to dig into his wrists as more and more weight was put on them. They also cut off the bloodstream to his hands, turning them increasingly numb.

Not good…'

Higher. Only with the tips of of his toes could Éomer still reach the ground, and his shoulders started to hurt under the strain of his own bodyweight.

„You like this, forgoil?" Felrod sneered, and with a last hard jolt, shortened the chain to the point where his victim's feet dangled freely in the air. „Feels good, doesn't it?" He fastened the chain around the bolt and stepped back, straightening and undoubtedly satisfied with his work. „Well… I believe we are, in fact, ready." He rubbed his hands together and cracked his knuckles in anticipation.

From somewhere Éomer couldn't tell, a burst of energy shot through him. His warrior's instincts reacted to the emergency situation, pumped the adrenaline through his body in a mighty flood. Made him ready to fight. He had no chance to escape, but Béma, if even the tiniest chance presented itself to hurt his torturers back, it would find him ready.


The wind was chill as Éowyn quickly descended the stairs from the terrace towards the path that would lead her down into the city. For a moment, It threatened to blow the hood from her head, and she dimly rembered that someone had mentioned that a late winter storm was about to hit them. She could see the vapour of her breath rising into the air before the next gust carried it away, and clenched her fingers into the warm fur. This was not good. It would be freezing in the dungeon. While it kept away the main force of the wind, the rock was perforated with fissures that allowed cold drafts in, and in winter, prisoners often fell sick from exposure. She had to get her brother out of there, as fast as possible!

After the confinement of the last days, part of her still wondered that they had allowed her to leave Meduseld, but of course, the danger had passed that she would warn Éomer before he could be apprehended. They thought that there was nothing left to do for her to help her brother. How she would prove them wrong!

A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that nobody was following her… or at least, she did not see anyone. Silent as a shadow, the daughter of Éomund hurried down the path. A touch of disorientation washed over her the further she descended. Why was there no one on the street? How late was it? A look up did not help her; the moon's face and the stars were obstructed by a thick layer of clouds. Somehow, it felt to her like the middle of the night, but it could not be. And yet, it was probably for the best if as few people as possible saw her.

Ten minutes later, she had reached her destination, a massive, well-kept house in a back alley close to the éored's stables. Her heart beating in her throat, she knocked. She had no idea what she was going to say, but… he had to know. Perhaps, he would know what to do.

From behind the door, the sound of quick steps reached her ears, then a key turned in the lock. Through the opening gap, Éowyn beheld Éothain's expectant face. And yet as he opened the door and saw her, the expression of relief on his features quickly turned into a frown. Very obviously, he had been expecting Éomer.

"Eowyn? But… why…"

„Éomer was thrown into the dungeon, and the Worm plans to kill him. Please, Éothain, help me!"


Author's Notes:

Ahem… I suppose, as far as this story goes, this is rock bottom. I apologize, but please bear with me. We are also starting to get into "Untold Tales" territory, soon, leaving canon (a warning for those of you who don't like their stories to be AU). I realize that I will have to make some adjustments to "Untold Tales" to make these two stories blend the way I want it; so I've got my work cut out for me for the coming, dark months. Do I dare to end this "Author's Note" with an "Enjoy"? I do… ;-)

Chapter 17: Rock Bottom

Éowyn rubbed her hands together, still feeling frozen to the core even though it was pleasantly warm in front of the big fireplace. Before her, Éothain and his father were engaged in an intense discussion, their words once again illustrating to her that the solution she had had in her mind before coming here wasn't one.

Béma, how she had hoped that Éothain and Céorl would take their riders and storm Meduseld, and free Éomer by force. And at first, Éothain had seemed to have been inclined to do exactly that when he heard of his friend's fate, but as the discussion with his father went on, she came to realise that the chance of this happening grew smaller and smaller… and even worse, she could understand the older captain's reservations as he elaborated on them.

"Believe me, Éothain, there is nothing I would like to do more than cleave the Worm's head off his scrawny body," the powerful warrior just said. "I don't think that I have to prove that to you. Perhaps, if we were really lucky, we would even succeed in freeing the marshal. But what then? I have been listening to the people's conversations these passed days, and I'm afraid that I have to tell you that many believe the accusations against Éomer. I wish it wasn't so, but it is. If we did what you suggest, it would make us rebels. And while there are certainly others bound to share our view of things, many will say otherwise. The Mark would burn in a civil war, Éothain, and that is what we must avoid at all costs. We are already hard-pressed these days to fight off our enemies on the western and eastern borders. The loss of life in those last battles has never been higher… Add to that Rohirrim killing Rohirrim over this matter, and we may as well all fall on our swords right now. It would be our undoing. And perhaps, that is exactly what the Worm wants!"

With a deep sigh, Céorl leant back in his chair and glanced at their guest in apology.

"I am immeasurably sorry, my Lady. I wished we could storm up that hill and do what you hoped for, but it could easily be the end for the Mark. There has to be a different way to help your brother."

Éowyn wiped a hand over her face to hide her disappointment. Béma, she was so tired…

"It is not as if I don't understand the situation, Captain," she began again, trying to focus against her increasing despair and exhaustion. "But what other way would that be? They will keep Éomer in the dungeon until they kill him… and if I know the Worm at all, I assume that he will avenge himself for all the frustration my brother has caused him over the years before he will have him executed."

She looked up, and her hard stare pierced the warrior for a seemingly endless moment before she turned her head and looked at Éothain. She could see that, in addition to just having been shocked with the tidings of Théodred's death, the dilemma was tearing the younger man apart, but she could not afford to be merciful right now. She was, in fact, about to become even crueller. It was necessary though.

"Do you believe that they will grant Éomer a quick, clean death?" She shook her head, desperately trying to keep back the flood of horrible images that threatened to overwhelm her in reaction to her words. "Do you believe that they will simply cut off his head, or snap his neck at the gallows, and be done with it? Because I don't."

Her eyes burned anew with unshed tears, but stubbornly, she fought them back. Crying would not solve anything here.

The two men before her had to evade her bitter stare for a moment.

"It is a horrible thought," Céorl at last admitted. "And I agree that I fear the same. But if I'm right, we have at least three more days to think of something to help your brother. First, there must be a trial, and a verdict must be spoken. Our law commands it. And no doubt will Éothain and I be summoned to the hall tomorrow. The Worm will want to speak with us. While we are there, we can see for ourselves how things are, and whether there might still be the chance to sway the Royal Guard to our side."

Furrows appeared on Éowyn's brow.

"That was what Éomer tried, and even he failed. And it would give the Worm the opportunity to dispose of you, as well, if he caught you."

"Aye, we would have to be very careful," Éothain sighed, clearly hating the thought of having to wait while his friend suffered. "We'll need to be subtle. But it is worth a try, I believe. At least we will see what the situation is, and we will be able to take it from there." He looked at his father. "Until then, I need to find out who among our riders betrayed Éomer. We sent the few men we were not entirely sure of along with the éored's other half to Westfold, but it seems that we did not catch the Worm's snitch with this measure. I will not feel safe doing anything until we have weeded out his spies."

Céorl nodded.

"Indeed, that should be the first thing you do, Éothain. Everything we plan will be vain until you found them."

"My Lady, you are shivering. Here, have some tea." Lady Glenwyn, Éothain's mother, had silently approached from behind and placed a steaming cup right before her, gently touching Éowyn's shoulder before she slid into a seat by her husband's side.

With a thankful glance, Éowyn wrapped her frozen fingers around the earthen mug, enjoying the warmth for a moment. Then her thoughts turned dark again. She doubted that Éomer would be given a warm drink in his cell… or anything to eat. He would lie on the cold, bare rock in the darkness, hungry and thirsty and cold and hurting, at the end of his strength, wrapped up in his grief for his cousin and blaming himself for Théodred's death, with the horrifying prospects of his own execution in mind. Once again, her throat tightened dangerously.

Perhaps, there was at least something she could do about that. It would certainly be better than sitting here, pitying him from afar. With a slight snuffle, she raised the cup to her mouth and tested the temperature. When she found it not too hot, she emptied it with a few quick swallows and then set it back, moving backwards with her chair.

"I thank you, Lady Glenwyn," she said, rising to her feet. "Captain Céorl… Éothain…" A curt nod. "Please, come and see me when you are in Meduseld tomorrow. I will be waiting for you."

"We will be there, Éowyn." Éothain stood up with her. Following an impulse, he embraced her, and felt her responding. It was a good moment, a moment of much needed solace. "I promise you, we will do whatever we can for Éomer," he whispered and slowly stepped back. "Come to me with everything you have. Every concern, every worry, every idea… I am here for you. And not just I, our whole family."

Thankfully, she reached out and laid a hand against his cheek.

"They say friendship is proven only in hard times. I couldn't wish for a better friend, Éothain… and neither could Éomer. Thank you… and be careful." She looked up. "You all. Please watch out. We are all in the Worm's focus now."

At the door, she hesitated for a moment as she slipped into her fur cape, and her eyes went up to where the Golden Hall's shadow towered over Edoras. Part of her dreaded to go up there again, to re-enter the Worm's domain. And yet there was something she needed to do. Something dangerous… but necessary.

"Would you like me to accompany you, Éowyn?" Éothain asked, somehow sensing her dread. She gave him a small, ensuring smile.

"What should happen to me within the confines of our walls, Éothain? Thank you, but it is not necessary." Tightening the hood around her head, the daughter of Éomund disappeared into the night.


Drip… drip… drip…

It was the noise of falling waterdrops Éomer noticed first when he slowly rose from the depths of unconsciousness. He realised that he had been listening to the steady dripping for quite a while, but only now seemed his fogged mind able to apply a source to the sound.


Aside from the constant dripping, the silence around him was complete… and it was cold. So cold, in fact, that his teeth clattered. And not only his teeth… His whole body seemed to shake in the grip of uncontrolled tremors. Gradually, hesitantly, reality began to take shape around him… and if the shaking and the constant, dull pounding in the very, very back of his awareness were any indication, reality was looking grim.

Applying more will power to it than a simple task like this should have taken, the son of Éomund opened his eyes… to darkness.

'Where am I?'

In an instinctive effort to sit up, Éomer twitched… and gasped when the sudden movement cast him into a world of hurt. The assault came from all sides at once, tore into his awareness with sharp, powerful claws and knocked the air from his lungs. A searing bright flash of excruciating pain shot through his shoulders and neck, and a moment later, his head exploded into agony…followed by his entire body. He could not even focus on any particular, dominant ache; it all was a raging, throbbing inferno that felt as if one of their great herds had stampeded over him… And there was this nausea, even worsening now as he twitched and found that even this small reaction set off a chain reaction, causing the world to spin around him. His stomached heaved and another retching fit assaulted him, even though there was nothing left in it to be worthy of the effort.


Waiting for the bright explosions before his eyes in reaction to the movement to fade, Éomer at last succeeded in lifting his head and looking around. His breath coming in ragged, short bursts, he discovered that he could indeed see now. The surrounding darkness was not complete, it was illuminated by a torch somewhere further back in the tunnel. In its flickering glow, the iron bars of his prison materialized before him, effectively answering his prior question.

Slowly, carefully, the son of Éomund tilted back his hurting neck against the insistent cramping of his muscles… to find himself hanging suspended in the air by iron cuffs around his wrists. Well, that certainly explained why he couldn't feel anything beyond the agony in his screaming shoulder joints… and why even the smallest twitch would send him spinning on the chain that held him.

At last, some of the grim reality came back to him. His doomed tirade to sway the Royal Guard, and his attack on the Worm. He could not remember whether he had actually succeeded in snapping his adversary's neck. If so, it was certainly worth even this pain… but if his present condition was any indication, it was far likelier that he had failed, for even though his uncle had probably ordered him to be thrown into a cell, Éomer could not imagine Théoden having given the order to abuse him. No, this had to be the Worm's doing… which meant that he was still alive.

Allowing his head to sink back onto his chest as strength began to fail him, Éomer stared at the naked rock floor. The shredded remains of his tunic and shirt lay crumbled in the corner, while his armour had been taken away. He narrowed his eyes in disgust at the thought that perhaps, the halfblood would claim it for himself. Would the members of the Royal Guard tolerate that, too?

'They tolerated this. And they will tolerate that our worst enemy finishes me off right before their eyes.'

He would have spat had his mouth not been entirely dry. The thirst was almost as bad as the pain, making his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth, and Éomer doubted that he would be given anything to remedy this condition in the coming hours. Whatever misery the Worm was able to cause him in revenge for his assault, he would bestow upon him. That was a given. The beating had only been the beginning.

As his glance travelled aimlessly through the twilight of his cell, it came to rest on a tiny irregularity on the otherwise even floor. It reflected what little light there was, glistening wetly. He narrowed his eyes. It had…the shape of an ear? Or at least, the upper part of an ear? From somewhere of the depth, memory came to him: it was Felrod's. Using the short, but intense burst of energy his body had granted him in the emergency situation, Éomer remembered having slung his strong legs around his opponent's midriff as the half-blood had entered his range, and pulled himself close enough to sink his teeth into the guard's pinna. The resulting yell was still echoing in his mind and brought the ghost of a smile to his face as he revelled in the brief moment of satisfaction.

He had paid for it, though. Béma, had he paid for it…

Felrod's rage had been fearsome, and he had known where to hit. Blow upon blow had pelted down on his unprotected body – his stomach first and intensively, to force the air out of him and prevent him from bracing against the following hits. His ribs next, followed by the liver and kidney region… then his groin.

By then, his consciousness had already been reduced to instinct, and in his desperate attempt to escape the torment, he had kicked out and found a target. Retribution had come swiftly though, and efficiently. With a growl that would not have been misplaced on a warg, Felrod had hammered both fists onto his shoulders, pushing him down and almost forcing his joints out of their sockets. Forcing him to scream even against his iron determination not to grant his tormentors the satisfaction. The last thing Éomer remembered was a firm grip around his hips and another sharp downward jolt…

As he tipped back his head again to look up to his numb arms, wondering whether his shoulder joints were still where they belonged, Éomer's attention was suddenly claimed by the distant noise of an opening door. His heartbeat accelerated.

'The Worm…'

Was it already time for a second round, this time, with his arch enemy watching? He was not sure how much more he would be able to take. Perhaps, if he pretended to still be unconscious… Letting his head sink back onto his chest, Éomer listened with growing dread to the approaching steps. Two men, if he was not mistaken.

'Perhaps, it is not him.'

Perhaps, it was Háma… or Gamling, checking on the treatment of their prisoner. Perhaps, this ordeal would end when they saw him like this and reported it to the king. Perhaps—

The steps came to a halt before his cell. For a moment, there was silence, the only sound in the corridor the hissing and crackling of the torch. Withstanding the impulse to look up, Éomer strained his ears, hoping against hope…

"Open the cell."

It was Gríma's voice, even if it sounded strained and hoarse. His heart sank as he listened to the jingle of the keys, and then the sharp clack as the lock gave way.

"The bastard's still unconscious." Felrod's rumbling voice. It too, sounded pained, granting Éomer another short moment of satisfaction. "I did what you wanted, Master. You see, his face is untouched. As for the rest of his body… I did my best not to break any bones."

'I hope the rest of your ear rots off, too…' Éomer thought. 'Makes you even uglier…'

The steps entered his cell, and sudden brightness assaulted his pounding head even through his closed eyelids.

"I see."

The light moved from left to right, down… and then flickered right before his face. For a moment, the sudden heat felt good.

"Good work, Felrod. Although I still don't understand how he managed to get you back. Only half conscious and chained… and still he helped himself to a piece of you."

To that, the halfblood muttered something unintelligible.

"Hmm…" the Worm made… and without warning, a searing pain assaulted Éomer as the torch was pressed against his side. With a pained hiss, he swung to the side, thus newly aggravating his shoulders. Thankfully, the fire was removed as quickly as it had touched him.

"This works even better than a bucket of water," the son of Galmod stated with obvious satisfaction, and sharply examined his victim's drawn features as he took a cautious step back. "Still feeling rebellious, Marshal? Would you like a second helping? Don't worry, there is more to come…"

Éomer did not deign to answer to the provocation. There was precious little of his strength left, and he could not afford to give it away for a scathing reply that would only cause him even more pain.

The Worm smirked.

"What? Cat got your tongue? Where is your usual spunk, son of Éomund? Or are you afraid?" He waited a moment longer, and when his opponent remained silent, took another few steps back… out of his cell. "Lower him to the ground, Felrod. I believe that, perhaps, for today, the marshal has endured all that he can stomach. I do not want him to die unless I allow him to."

The half-blood furrowed his brow.

"You want me to unchain him, Master? I wouldn't trust him."

"Oh, I don't trust him. But I know the son of Éomund well, and yet I have never before seen this look in his eyes. The cuffs stay, but you can lower him… for now." A deep, whistling breath. "One false move, Marshal, and you will find yourself dangling in the air again… for the remainder of the night!"

It was a frightening thought, but even without the threat, Éomer would not have found the strength to do anything but hang there, a bag of misery. With a strained creaking, the chain that held him was loosened… and he dropped to the ground, grunting at the impact.

Of course, the Worm laughed.

"This was not what I had in mind when I said that you should lower him, Felrod, but it will do. Now get out of there and lock the cell… and then leave us alone. I need to speak with our prisoner. Although…" A short moment of hesitation. "Do move him closer to the bars for me. It will make our exchange easier."

"As you wish, Master."

Again, the chain was grabbed, and then the half-blood dragged him by it to where Wormtongue was silently waiting in the flickering light. . If his body had not screamed at him over the new abuse, thereby claiming his full attention, Éomer would have been amused over the big guard's submissive tone. Grinding his teeth, he bit back the cry, determined not to grant the filth the satisfaction. At last, the movement stopped. Something landed on him, a light, scratchy, stinking thing.

"Here. Cover yourself, Marshal," Gríma said. "Otherwise, I fear that you will not live to see the light of day."

Once more, there was the sound of keys, and with a final clack, the cell was locked again.

"Will you further need me tonight, Master?"

"I think not. It has been a long day. You may retire, Felrod."

For a moment, there was only silence and the sound of the half-blood's fading footsteps. Fighting to catch his breath, Éomer tried to move his arms, but still found them numb and useless. With an only half suppressed groan, he shifted his weight away from his hurting hip and rested his head against the wall, thoroughly exhausted even from this small effort.

"You know, Marshal, I never really thought that I would actually get away with this," Gríma confessed at last. "That I would ever see you like this… and that your uncle would know about it and sanction it. This is… rather breathtaking."

'I bet it is…' Éomer thought. 'But perhaps it is only a broken rib.'

There was the sound of shuffling feet before him, and then Gríma leant back against the wall on the other side of the corridor. A grim, satisfied smile tugged at Éomer's mouth, and cautiously, he moved his head to grant his adversary an amused glance out of narrowed eyes.

"Even after having me beaten up and chained, and with these bars between us, you are still afraid of me, Worm," he uttered lowly, but loud enough for Gríma to hear. "Bloody craven…" There was still no saliva in his mouth. Pity. If there ever had been a worthier target…

"You call it 'craven', I call it 'smart'," Wormtongue replied evenly, not rising to the provocation. "There is no need to endanger myself needlessly. Aye, you may look like a wreck right now, and yet I am certain that you would try and grab me even through these bars if I gave you half a chance. Forget it. It's not happening. You will not get your hands on me again. At least not in this lifetime."

"Someone will. Soon. "

"Are you referring to those strangers you met on the plains?' The disdainful sneer clearly penetrated into the Worm's voice. He gave a short laugh. "Be assured that my men are already searching for them. Even if they wanted to make for Edoras, they will never arrive here. You can take my word for it."

The face of the man who had called himself Aragorn took shape before Eomer's inner eye. The strength and willpower in those grey eyes. The way he had drawn his sword, with a fluent move that bespoke his skill with the deadly blade. Somehow, he actually hoped that the Worm's thugs would run into him and his companions. It would mean fewer men left to do the filth's bidding.

"Why are you here, Worm?" he muttered, exhausted. "To gloat? Isn't that cheap, even for you?"

Gríma chuckled.

"I must admit that I still cannot fully fathom that the moment has arrived at last for all my plans to come to fruition. Even seeing you like this…" He inhaled deeply. "I worked very hard for this to happen, son of Éomund. All these past years, I worked ceaselessly for this triumph, and I am going to enjoy it now, no matter what you think. Your cousin is dead, you are as good as dead, your uncle is my puppet and the court will accept whatever nonsense he decrees… And your sister... well, your sister will be mine. At long last."

A shiver ran down Éomer's spine at the thought.

"Éowyn will cut off your balls and force feed them to you, if you ever lay a finger on her," he whispered, out of breath and strength. His mind swam, a result of pain and exposure. Once again he tried to grasp the blanket and spread it over himself, but as before, his appendages refused to follow his command, and he sank back.

"Oh, I do not doubt that she will try." Wormtongue settled back against the wall. Cautiously. So apparently, he was hurting. Just not enough. "Perhaps it would even be better to keep you alive, to make her do as I say. I have no doubt that she would agree to allow me into her bed if I threatened to make you bleed…"

Éomer shuddered.

"…but the people of Edoras need to see you die. They need to see the price for rebellion. And I will make them watch, Marshal. They will see you die on the gallows, but it will not be quick. I already made arrangements to have the trap door manipulated in such a way that it will open only partially, and instead of having your neck snapped, you will be strangulated. It will give them nightmares, even if they want to see you die for your betrayal right now! And no one will ever dare to move against me again once they witnessed that." Wormtongue clapped his hands in delight. "I can barely await the day!"

Éomer had no words left for a reply. His fogged brain refused to cooperate. His imagination came up empty when he asked it for a way to avoid what his adversary had just described so vividly. Even if Aragorn and his companions arrived before he was executed… they were only three.

And Éothain? His éored? What would they do once his death sentence was passed? Accept it… or try to free him?


"You have nothing to say to that, Éomer son of Éomund?" Slowly, Wormtongue pushed himself away from the wall, ready to leave. "Pity. I would have liked to hear your thoughts on this subject, especially the part concerning your sister. But perhaps, we can continue our exchange tomorrow. It is rather late."

He cast a last glance at his prisoner, an expression of deep satisfaction upon his pale face, before he turned to go.

"Sweet dreams, Marshal…"


Chapter 18: A Dangerous Undertaking

The wind had again increased, and it had grown even colder when Éowyn returned to the Golden Hall. Granting the door wards a curt nod as she passed them, the daughter of Éomund slipped through the door in a flurry of snowflakes. As she paused for a moment to blow warm air into her hands, she looked around… and was relieved to see the benches and tables next to the hearth fire deserted. Apparently, it was as late as it felt to her, and all activity in the hall had died down.

Best of all: the Worm was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps, he had already retired for the night, and lay in his bed now hurting from bruised or even broken bones, fighting to breathe through his severely swollen throat. What a good thought that was! With quick steps, the daughter of Éomund made for her chambers and closed the door behind herself, only allowing herself to relax when she heard the clack of the lock.

A quick survey confirmed that her chambers were indeed as empty as they had looked, and that her adversary was not waiting for her silently in a corner. She wouldn't have deemed it beneath him. But at least for now, she felt truly alone…

The thought to visit Windfola before she made for Meduseld had suddenly occurred to Éowyn on the way up, and she had followed that impulse without questioning. Resulting from the Worm's curfew, she had not seen her mare for quite a few days, and she was sure that it would not raise suspicion that she had been there… contrary to the true destination of her late excursion. She had seen to it that straw was still sticking to her cape upon her return, and that there was at least a whiff of the horse's scent on her clothes and hands as she passed the guards.

The mare had been happy to see her owner, and while Éowyn had likewise enjoyed their brief reunion as she rubbed the grey's brow and buried her face in the warm fur, the true reason for her surprise visit had been her saddle bags. Finding them where she had left them after her last ride, she had pulled out her water skin and, with a brief glance around to see whether she was still alone, lifted the folds of her dress to stuff the small leather pouch beneath the cloth firmly around her waist. With the cape back in place, there had been nothing to see for anyone.

To make the stablehands remember her visit, Éowyn had then asked them for a couple of apples and carrots for Windfola, fighting the urge to storm up the path and go through with her undertaking, now that she had everything she needed. But it had been too early… and it still was.

As she slipped out of her cape, Éowyn beheld the tray on the table near the window. Not knowing when her mistress would return, Maelwyn had left her supper before she had returned to her family. That was good. It would have only raised suspicion had she ordered something at this late hour.

Producing the waterskin from beneath her winter dress, Éowyn walked over to the table to inspect the tray's contents. There was an earthen bowl with a lid, and a mouth-watering smell of potato soup rose from it when she lifted it. Beside it on a plate, there were two thick slices of dark bread, an assortment of cheese and fruit, and a slice of cold roast. Holding her nose over the tankard, Éowyn found it to be mulled wine, and the drinking glass beside it appeared to hold apple juice. Perfect.

Briefly dipping her little finger into the soup, Éowyn found it lukewarm, likewise the wine. Carefully, she carried both over to her fireplace and positioned them near the glowing embers. So far, so good. The wine would go into her water skin once it had sufficiently warmed, and the soup…

In search for the right vessel, Éowyn's glance travelled over the massive wooden shelves by her bedside. Over the years, she had amassed a variety of keepsakes there, some useful, some priceless… and some only of sentimental value. A herd of little wooden horses, once lovingly carved by her father. An array of candles, too beautifully poured to waste. An exquisitely carved wooden box that held some of her mother's jewellery. Books. What she needed stood on the shelf above: a silver tankard with a beautifully embossed white horse on green enamel, an heirloom of their house. It had once held her collection of interestingly coloured pebbles; now she would use it to bring her brother an unexpected meal.

Satisfied with her preparations, Éowyn walked over to the window and opened it. Crisp air and tiny snowflakes assaulted her once again, but the daughter of Éomund hardly noticed as she looked out. There were only few lights left in the houses below, but they confirmed to her that it was still too early. She could not afford to get caught. As hard as she found it, she would have to wait at least another hour, better another two hours.

Éowyn sighed. She had never been the patient type, sharing that trait with her brother. Shutting the window again, she pulled back the chair and sat down with a doubtful glance at her plate. She felt too nervous to eat, and yet she knew that she, too, would have to uphold her strength for the following days.

'Hold out,I'm coming, Éomer,' she thought. 'Wait but a little while…'


"Éothain? Èothain, wake up!"

The voice was persistent and refused to go away, no matter how much the son of Céorl fought to ignore it. Trying to turn on his other side, he suddenly felt a hand upon his shoulder, giving him a gentle shake.

"Éothain, wake up. There is someone at the door."

Reluctantly, he opened his eyes… and saw his mother's concerned face hovering above him. He groaned.


"It's the stablemaster. He said it's urgent."

"The stablemaster? Beorhdric?" Éothain sat up, all of a sudden wide awake. "Is anything wrong with Scatha?"

His mother shook her head.

"He only said that he urgently needed to see you."

With a worried glance, Éothain slipped out of the bed and rose to his feet, inwardly asking himself for how long he had been sleeping. From the way he was feeling, it could not have been more than a few minutes.

"Can you please tell him to come in? I will be there shortly. Thank you, mother."

Quickly he slipped into the shirt and breeches he had carelessly thrown onto the nearby chair, fiddling with the leather cords while his mind raced. Béma, what was it now? Was there no end to this day's horrible tidings? First upon his return to Edoras, he had learned from his father that the Prince had been killed in the Westfold attacks. Then Éowyn had brought them the news of Éomer's imprisonment. And now… what? Were the stables on fire? Had Scatha fallen sick? He barely dared to imagine why Beorhdric had knocked at their door in the middle of the night.

Slipping on his boots, Éothain was at last ready and all but stormed out of his sleeping chambers… to find the stablemaster waiting in the hallway, together with his parents. When the man beheld him, the shaken expression engraved in his weathered features caused Éothain's stomach to tighten.

"Captain Éothain! I apologise for waking you at this ungodly hour, but something happened in the stables."

"Something concerning our horses?" Éothain furrowed his brow. Beorhdric shook his head.

"Alas, it is one of your riders. Cernhelm. He… he killed himself."


Only a few minutes later, Éothain saw with his own eyes the sight that had so badly shaken the usually so calm and controlled stablemaster. He swallowed, understanding the man only too well, as he stared in stunned shock at the dangling body. The way it looked, Cernhelm, one of their youngest riders, had entered his horse's stall while everyone had been sleeping, climbed onto the wall… and hung himself from the rafters.

"I did not hear him enter," Beorhdric admitted with a deep, pained sigh. "I mean… it had been a long day, and... and…" He shook his head in denial and swallowed. "Then the horses grew restless and I woke… and I saw him hanging there. I ran to help him as fast as I could, but one look was enough to see that he was already dead."

"You are not at fault here, Beorhdric." Cernhelm had a family, Éothain remembered with dismay. A young wife and a small child, still in the crib. What had caused the young rider to snap and kill himself? What desperate situation had he found himself in to have chosen this horrible ending, when he had had so much to live for? Béma, what a mess…

"Let us take him down."

"I will help you," his father's voice reached him from the stable's entrance. Éothain turned around and saw in the older man's eyes the same stunned disbelief that he himself was feeling. "Any idea why he did this?"

Éothain shook his head.

"We never spoke much. He was always rather quiet. I only know that he had a wife and a small child, which would have given him all the more reason to find another solution, whatever his problem might have been."

Together, the three men worked quickly to cut down the dead man and lay him into the straw.

With deep sorrow edged into his broad features, Céorl looked down upon the corpse.

"His wife must be sick with worry," he said, and meet his son's disheartened glance. "She should not have to wait any longer, although the tidings will come as a shock. Are you up to it… or should I go? You do look like death warmed over."

"This is such a nightmare…" Éothain sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I appreciate your offer, Father… but I was his captain. I owe it to his family to inform them."

"This is always the hardest of our duties." Céorl laid a hand upon his son's shoulder. For a moment, the two warriors shared a moment of mutual compassion and understanding. "Go, Éothain. Beorhdric and I will see to it that his body is properly tended. If you want to talk later, I will be there for you."


At last, the time had come. Trying to rest but only having listened to the accelerated beating of her heart for the last hours, sleep the furthest thing from her mind, Éowyn came to her feet. Another brief glance out of the window confirmed to her that the city was now lying in darkness. It had to be the middle of the night. No more excuses for delaying the necessary.

Quickly moving around in the twilight of her room, the daughter of Éomund assembled what she needed on her bed and then turned to take the bowl of soup out of the fireplace. It was now warm enough, and she poured its contents into the tankard and secured the lid. If there was one thing she couldn't afford, it was the smell of soup still hanging in the air when the Worm came to visit her brother again.

The wine likewise was ready, and she poured it into her waterskin. An apple and a wrapped slice of the bread with the roast on it went into the bags of the dark green coat she had chosen for this excursion. It was the darkest piece of clothing she owned, and even if she didn't think that she would encounter any guards in the dungeon at this hour, it would provide at least a certain level of protection from unfriendly eyes.

The question was only whether Gríma knew of the tunnel system. She feared that he did. In ancient times, it had been hewn into the rock to give the royal family a chance to escape in the case of an invasion. Knowledge of these tunnels was strictly limited to its members, but as the Worm seemed to know almost everything, Éowyn deemed it safe to assume that its existence was not new to him. But would he anticipate her desperate effort to help her brother? She hoped not.

'He cannot think of everything,' she tried to soothe herself as she slipped into her coat. With the full waterskin and the food package in its bags, she felt rather ungainly... but it would do. Picking up the tankard, Éowyn walked over to where a large tapestry covered the back of her bedroom. The fabric was extraordinarily thick and hung straight down. The iron bar worked into its lower end made sure that nothing moved even when the window was opened, giving the casual visitor not the slightest indication of the tunnel's mouth behind it.

Cautiously, she lifted the fabric and listened into the darkness beyond with baited breath, her pulse hammering in her ears. Apart from that, all seemed quiet. So it was now... or never. Silently, Éomund's daughter slipped into the tunnel. She had only once walked in it before, back when Éomer and she had still been children. They had only just relocated to Edoras after the death of their parents, and upon assigning them their chambers, Théodred had made them acquainted with the tunnel system. She remembered how excited Éomer had been as they followed their cousin through the hill's intestines only in the light of a torch, and she also recalled the feeling of utter isolation and dread that had assaulted her here. She had been glad to return to daylight after an hour, and had never set foot in them again for all these past years.

Now she was glad they existed, and tried to recall the important details... such as how smooth the floor was. Where there any stairs? Where did the various junctions lead to? She remembered that there actually was one that led to the dungeon. Somehow, she would have to find it in complete blackness, as she had not dared to take a candle with her.

Sliding along the tunnel wall with her one free hand, Éowyn moved ahead cautiously, every few steps pausing to listen. So far, everything seemed quiet. The ground sloped gently downward, leading her deeper and deeper into the ancient rock. The noise of her own breathing seemed greatly increased in her ears, but then again, it was probably only her imagination... and the knowledge that she was doing something that would cause her serious problems if she were detected.

Éowyn had no idea for how long she had walked through the darkness, when her hand came upon an opening in the wall. Her heart jumped into her throat.

'Is this it?'

Again she listened, and when nothing moved, Éowyn set foot into the new tunnel, inwardly praying that, if she had to make a hasty retreat, she would find the way back to her chambers without problems. Before her, the absolute blackness now gave way to flickering twilight. Torches. It seemed as if she had indeed found the right path. Cautiously, she proceeded... and found herself at the end of a long corridor only moments later.

´Béma, it's cold in here!'

Only a single torch further back was burning as a night light. It illuminated a row of iron-barred doors. There was no guard in sight. It looked as if the Worm had indeed not expected her to emerge from the tunnels; apparently, he had placed his guard only at the door in the hall. And still, Éowyn moved with infinite caution through the silent corridor, increasingly feeling like a deer in the forest during hunting season the further she stepped away from the sheltering tunnel.

The first cell... was empty. She was not sure how many prisoners the dungeon held at the moment. If any of them cried out when they saw her, it would be unfortunate. All the more reason to tread lightly and not wake them. The next cell. No one there. Feeling her tension mount as she slowly approached the light, fingers clenching the tankard, Éowyn moved on. The next cell... empty. She had almost passed it when a sudden impulse caused her to lower her eyes to the space near the bars. There was something... or someone? A dark heap on the ground before the door.

She halted and turned around. Approached the cell and narrowed her eyes. What was that? A filthy, threadbare blanket...and there were feet sticking out on one end. Feet clad in riding boots. On the upper end, a few strands of hair spilled over the fabric… hair that might have been golden in the daylight.

With a soundless gasp, Éowyn knelt down and stuck her free hand through the bars. Cautiously, she peeled back the blanket… to find a familiar face beneath it.


Her urgent whisper was not rewarded with a reaction, which worried her greatly. Once, years ago, she had made the mistake of trying to wake her brother who had fallen asleep in his horse's box with a gentle touch at his shoulder… only to pay for her carelessness with a couple of blue and black bruises on her throat and back, when his warrior's reflexes had cast him into defensive action before he had fully woken.

Cautiously, Éowyn gave his shoulder the gentlest of shakes.


And still he did not stir. Taking in what she could make out of her brother's appearance in the sparse light, Éowyn swallowed hard. Even in sleep, Éomer's features seemed weary and drawn, grief and pain edged deeply into his features. There was dried blood on his chin. Iron cuffs had been tightly fastened around his wrists, still attached to a heavy-looking chain that snaked further into his cell, where it seemed to be connected to a massive bolt in the wall. She was dismayed to see blood there, too, where the iron had bitten deeply into his skin.

"Oh brother," she whispered, and gently smoothed back a strand of his hair that had fallen into his face. "What have they done to you?" At last, there was movement beneath her fingertips. Éomer was moving his head ever so slightly…and opened his eyes. The expression in them was drowsy and confused as he regarded her silently for a moment that seemed to take forever.

"Éo… Éowyn?" His voice was barely audible. It nevertheless caused the tears she had held back so far to freely run down her cheeks. "Are you real?"

"Aye, brother." She could not wholly suppress the sob, even though her dismay was the last thing she wanted him to see. "Aye, I am here. This is not a dream."


Éomer would have wagered a large amount that the result of the Worm's wrath would keep him awake all through the night, and yet only a brief time after his adversary had left, exhaustion had blown out his awareness like a candle. He had plunged into a deep, dreamless sleep, not unlike unconsciousness. There was no pain there, and no hunger, and no thirst. No blame for his cousin's death, or dismay over the daunting prospects of his nearing end. It was a necessary shutdown to keep his body functioning. The point where even his considerable reserves ended.

He would have been happy to remain in this place, and yet it seemed that he was denied even this small favour. Something – or someone – was calling him back. Even with his eyes closed, Éomer could not shake the distinct feeling that he was no longer alone.

'Won't even let me sleep, filth, will you?'

Stubbornly, he kept his eyes shut. Then someone touched his shoulder. Gently. That confused him greatly, because the Worm certainly knew better that that. He knew that his life would be in danger if he gave his captive even the faintest of chances… such as this. Also, it was not Wormtongue's voice who uttered his name now.

The gentle touch reached his face, where it smoothed a strand of his hair away with a butterfly's touch.

"Oh brother…What have they done to you?"

Against his better knowledge, Éomer decided to risk a glance. A dark shape was kneeling on the other side of the bars, very close, its face unrecognisable in the twilight. And yet the hand that had touched him, the hand that was just now slowly being withdrawn… undoubtedly belonged to a woman. He recognized the slim ring around the middle finger, an heirloom of their mother's.

'It cannot be. She cannot be here!'

"Éo… Éowyn?" Was she crying? His sister never cried. "Are you real?"

"Aye, brother." She was crying! "Aye, I am here. This is not a dream."

With considerable effort, Éomer pushed himself up into a sitting position, distinctly noticing how stiff his body had become now that the bruises had been given the time to fully develop. And his head… well, it certainly had not improved yet. Forcefully, he bit back the groan that rose from his throat, not wanting to deepen Éowyn's worries by letting her know how messed up he really felt. With hands which slowly seemed to belong to his body again, Éomer clutched the bars of his prison.

"What are you doing here, Éowyn?" he whispered urgently. "This is dangerous!"

She shook her head in denial and grasped his hand.

"It is the middle of the night. Everyone's asleep. And I used the tunnels…"

Slowly, it dawned on him. The secret tunnels… Over the years, he had almost forgotten about them. But of course, his ever resourceful sister had remembered them, even though she had hated the place when their cousin had first shown them around.

"Also, I wanted to bring you something."

With her free hand, Éowyn picked up the tankard and carefully manoeuvred it through the bars. An intense glance found him. "They didn't give you anything to drink or eat, I presume?"

"No." Although with his stomach hurting like this, Éomer was not sure whether he would actually manage to keep anything in it. Carefully opening the lid, he peeked inside… and the mouth-watering smell of warm potato-soup wafted into his nose. "Oh…"

Setting the vessel's rim against his lips, he swallowed the first mouth full… the warm, creamy liquid doing unbelievable things to him on its way down. His torn lip protested briefly and found itself ignored. Had anything he had ever eaten in his life tasted as good as this? The warmth spread through his body and chased the shivers away for a moment that felt almost too good to be true.

"Oh, Éowyn…" He closed the lid again. If the Worm smelled so much as the slightest whiff when he next came to visit his prisoner, his sister would be in deep trouble. "You shouldn't endanger yourself for me… but this is so good! How can I ever repay you?"

"By surviving." The look in Éowyn's eyes had never been more serious. "By killing the Worm… in the worst way you can think of. Skinning or burning him alive, or quartering him would be acceptable methods."

'Fat chance of that happening,' Éomer though with a bitter smirk, and shot his sister a fitting glance over the rim of the tankard as he took another sip. It felt even better than the first one. New energy began to course through his abused body. He lowered the vessel with a deep sigh.

"Can't promise you that, as much as I'd like to." He shook his head… cautiously. Béma, that hurt! With his free hand, Èomer gingerly touched the big lump that had formed almost on the base of his skull. It had not gone down yet. He grimaced. "I mean… I will be ready to kill him if he offers me even the slightest chance… but he is cautious. You know him as well as I do."

"Aye… We will get him, though." Éowyn narrowed her eyes. "Somehow. Sometime when he least expects it."

From somewhere further down the corridor, a faint chink reached their ears, and with a start, Éowyn turned around. For a moment, sister and brother held their breath… until a low squeak and the sound of small feet scurrying over the bare rock told them that the disturbance had no human origin. Slowly, they allowed themselves to relax again.

"Rats." Éomer inhaled… and cursed silently when his ribs protested against the movement. "There are more than enough of those down here, I'm afraid." Once again, he raised the tankard to his lips and emptied it. With a thankful smile, he passed it back to his sister. "That was the best potato soup I ever tasted."

His enthusiastic remark made her smile for a moment.

"Which means something, as you never really had a taste for it." From the folds of her coat, she produced something else. A… waterskin? Éomer narrowed his eyes.

"What is that?"

"Something to wash the evil taste away with." She winked as she passed it to him.

Snorting in mild amusement, Éomer unscrewed it and held his nose over the opening. An incredulous look found Éowyn.

"Mulled wine? I must be dreaming this. This is too good to be true."

He sat the rim against his mouth and for a moment, revelled in the taste and the warmth of the liquid as it ran down his throat.

"I've got even more," his sister said, digging another small package out of the other bag. She showed it to him. Bread… and a slice of roast. Éomer furrowed his brow as he lowered the waterskin. The soup had reminded him of the fact that he had barely had anything to eat these past days, aside from their usual scarce road supplies… and yet he felt pretty sure that his bruised stomach would not tolerate solid food. Regretfully, he slowly shook his head.

"I wish I could eat that, but…"

"Your stomach?" Éowyn understood, and the brief smile turned into a frown. "What did the Worm do to you?"

"Set his Dunlending dog on me after they had chained me up," he spat. "I'll survive though… until they'll execute me."

All of a sudden, Gríma's threat was reverberating in his head.

'Instead of having your neck snapped, you'll be strangulated!'

"They will not execute you!" Éowyn declared forcefully, and he laid a finger upon his lips to quieten her.


"They will not execute you," she repeated, lowlier, but with the same intensity. "I will see to that. That's a promise!"

'And your sister… your sister will be mine!'

All of a sudden, the wine in Éomer's stomach turned sour. Grasping the bars with his chained hands, he brought his face closer to her, and in the flickering torch light, his eyes blazed with urgency.

"No, Éowyn! You cannot do that! And you must not return here. Please! Go and see Éothain tomorrow at first light. Ask him to escort you to Aldburg. You must not remain in Edoras! If you want to promise me something, promise me that you will leave the city tomorrow!"

She stared at him in utter consternation… and sudden anger.

"Leave? While you are in here? With a death threat hanging above your head? How could I ever do that?!"

"You'll have to." He swallowed. "Please. If there is one thing you can do for me…"

She shook her head.

"I can see to it that they won't kill you. I know what to do. Éomer, trust me! You cannot afford to send me away!"

"Éowyn, please!" In his sister's eyes, Éomer saw the same, stubborn streak that they both shared. It usually meant that any further word would be uttered in vain. But this was too important to yield. He had to make her understand the danger she was in. "Théodred is gone, and once the Worm has ridded himself of me… you know what he will try."

That silenced her for a moment… but not for long.

"If he does, I will kill him. And not even the Royal Guard will be able to say anything against that." She pressed her face between the bars. "Have faith in me, brother. I can help you… but only if I remain here. We will yet defeat him."

With a deep sigh, Éomer kissed her gently on the brow, the heaviness in his heart not diminished. Through the bars, she embraced him. They remained like this for a while, taking comfort in each other's presence without knowing whether fate would allow them to see each other again. At last, Éowyn pulled back and carefully stored everything she had brought with her in and beneath her coat again.

"I have to go. We should not stress our luck." She inhaled deeply. "I will be back, brother."

A thankful, but sad look was Éomer's response.

"Think about what I said, Éowyn. Please. It would make everything easier for me if I knew you safe in Aldburg."

Slowly but resolutely, she shook her head.

"I cannot do that. And you would not do that, either, were our roles exchanged, or if it were Théodred they kept down here. You would do whatever was in your power to free him. Don't deny me the same right." She rose to her feet. "With Béma on our side, we will overcome the Worm. Have faith." And with a last defiant look, she left.

For a moment, Éomer could still hear the echo of her cautious steps, until silence weighted down heavy upon him again. He settled back into his prior position, not certain whether sleep would come to find him again this night.


Author's Note: If any of you already read UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK, you will find that I have started to use passages of the first chapter for this story. As already mentioned, I am planning to rewrite several chapters of the older story to make them (hopefully) flow seamlessly together... And now on with this tale of epic woe!

Chapter 19: JUDGMENT

The night had grown old when Éothain finally returned to his home. It was not only the wind that chilled him to the core, although it had definitely picked up. No, the conversation with Fredda, Cernhelm's young wife, had opened up entirely new chasms of despair he was not ready to face in his current beat and depressed condition. It was all too much.

And yet he did not wake his father as he silently slipped through the door. Éothain knew that Céorl had meant what he had offered him, and Béma knew that he was in desperate need to unload the things he had just learned… but they would all need their strength in the days to come. Later would be soon enough.

He had almost made it into his room, when he heard the door to his parents' chambers creak, With an almost soundless groan, he turned around. Of course, his father possessed the same instincts as all their warriors. Any unusual noise in the night needed to be investigated, no matter where they were. These were more than uncertain times, and the careless would not live to see the light of day.

"It took you a while, son," Céorl whispered as he walked down the corridor on bare feet and slipped into his robe. His inquisitive gaze locked firmly on Éothain's despondent appearance. A brow went up. "It's a long story, I suppose?"

Éothain nodded.

"Aye. A long and sad story… not to mention alarming."

"Do you want to tell it to me now, or would you rather like to sleep on it, first?"

The sigh Éothain uttered came from the bottom of his heart.

"I doubt that I could sleep right now… although I do feel utterly depleted." He nodded. "Let us go and sit in the kitchen, Father. I do not want to wake up Mother, as well."

"She is already awake. But she knows that we need to discuss this amongst ourselves." Wiping the sleep from his eyes, the muscular warrior made it down the corridor with a light-footedness that seemed to contract his massive frame. As they reached the kitchen, Éothain pulled back a chair and all but let himself fall onto it while his father went on to pour a mug of water from a carafe. He offered it to his son. "Or do you want a hot drink? Tea?"

"Water will be enough, Father. Thank you." Thankfully, Éothain accepted the mug and waited until the older man had lowered himself to the seat on the other side of the table. "Where you awake all the time or did you hear me come in?"

"I waited for quite a while, because I didn't think that you would be gone for so long. Then I must have dozed off. " Céorl took a sip from his own drink and studied his son's expression with growing worry. "So tell me, Éothain, what happened? What did you find out?"

With a deep breath, Éothain leant back in the chair and locked eyes with the man who had raised him to be a warrior.

"I found out who Gríma's spy was… if there was only the one, which I seriously doubt now."

Céorl's could only stare at him.

"It was Cernhelm?"

"Aye… but from what Fredda told me, he was not at fault. He cannot be blamed for what he did."

Deep furrows appeared on Céorl's broad brow.

"I'm afraid I cannot follow you, son. Are you telling me that Cernhelm is responsible for the Marshal's arrestment and possible execution, but he can't be blamed for his betrayal?"

"Aye," Éothain replied tiredly. He shoved a hand through his hair. "That is exactly what I'm saying." He took another deep breath, grimaced… and met his father's confused gaze. "Fredda told me that a while ago, while we were on patrol, four of Wormtongue's men paid her a nightly visit… They beat her up badly, and then threatened to harm her child, as well, if she so much as breathed a word into the wrong ears about it. And when Cernhelm returned to her, she found him greatly changed. He was always a rather quiet type, but from that moment on, she said that it had seemed to her as if he carried the world upon his shoulders. Even more so when he saw the state she was in."

"So they ambushed him somewhere and threatened him, and when he came home, he saw that they meant it. What a filthy method!" Céorl spat. "Although it is just what I would expect from the Worm's thugs." Éothain nodded. "For how long had this been going on?"

"For more than a year. From time to time, whenever they felt that Cernhelm had not conveyed sufficient information on the éored's actions to them, they paid his family another visit to remind him what was at stake; always when he was with us on patrol, and always in the dead of night, so that they would not be seen." Éothain shook his head. "At last it seems that he could no longer take it. Fredda said that Cernhelm had seemed utterly desperate when he returned to her last night… a long time after the other riders of our éored had made it home. They must have waylayed and drawn the information about the strangers we met on the plains from him, possibly by force."

Spitting a curse, Céorl leant back in his chair, disgust and disbelief written on his broad features.

"She said that, upon coming home, Cernhelm just sat there at the table while she prepared him a hot meal…and there had been a look upon his face that had frightened her. That he had regarded her and the little one in such a strange way, as if he was about to make a decision of consequence. As if he was trying to come to terms with something horrible. And when she asked him what the matter was, she saw that he was crying…and he said that he could not do this any longer. He kissed her and his son goodbye and left…" Éothain swallowed and met his father' horrified gaze. "I should have noticed that something was not right. I failed him, Father."

Céorl shook his head and laid a hand upon his son's.

"With his wife's and his child's lives at stake, do you believe he would have told you the truth? Éothain?"

"I don't know!" Éothain banged his fist upon the table in helpless frustration. "Perhaps, I would have sensed that something was amiss. I should have known! We could have moved them out of harm's way! To Aldburg, or wherever! Somewhere where the Worm would never have found them!"

"Son!" Céorl interrupted him, but found himself ignored.

"I failed a man who trusted me with his life! How could I have been so blind and-"

"Son!" Louder this time, and this time, Éothain reacted. He paused, waiting for his father to continue. "Where is that place that Wormtongue doesn't know of? Tell me!" The older man's gaze pierced him, and he could not evade. "Do you not think that he has his spies everywhere? Do you not think that even if you had relocated Cernhelm's family to the smallest settlement in the most isolated valley of the Ered Nimrais, that Gríma would have found out eventually?... Perhaps with the help of another of his spies in your éored?"

For the longest time, Éothain could only stare back at his father in growing dismay. A colossal black wave of despair threatened to overwhelm him.

"That might be the most frightening thing about it," he whispered, barely able to fit the words through his tightening throat. "That we do not know how many of our riders are faced with the same dilemma right now. That they are being forced to spill the information about our doings to our enemy out of fear for their loved ones." He inhaled deeply through his nose and leant back. "What are we supposed to do about it, Father? What can we do? We cannot bring it before the Council. We do not have shred of proof."

For once, the man he had always looked up to for his experience and cunning had no answer.


"It was not your fault, Éomer. That snake wants you to believe that it was, but you know better. He left you no choice. You did the right thing when you rode north. You cannot afford to blame yourself; there are more urgent things you have to concern yourself with now… we must not let him get away with this!"

Théodred looked remarkably healthy despite the fact that he had been slain at the Fords of Isen only days ago, and his intense gaze tolerated no objection. Still Éomer felt unconvinced… and at the same time, he wondered why he felt no disorientation despite the fact that he suddenly found himself standing at said riverbank beside his cousin, and the fast-flowing waters flooded around their feet.

'Must be the concussion…'

He looked around in an attempt to get his bearings. The sky was of a stormy grey, and a slight drizzle had set in. The cries of the crows and buzzards above his head accumulated to a deafening din, befitting the terrible scenery that presented itself before him: dozens and dozens of slaughtered men and horses of his cousin's éored lay strewn on the ground around them, and even a brief glance revealed more familiar faces among them than Éomer would have cared to see. It really knocked the reality of the devastation that battle had brought into his skull.

'Perhaps it would have been different if we had been there,' he wondered as he allowed his gaze to travel over the scene a moment longer, feeling sick to his stomach. ‚Perhaps, they needn't have died…"

"Did you not hear what I just said, Cousin?" Théodred interrupted his despondent train of thought, and Éomer turned his head. "You had no choice. The Worm made sure of that. Had our roles be exchanged, I would have done the same, with the same heavy heart. Always assuming that we warriors stand a better chance of survival than the people in the settlements, even against superior forces. Father knows this, too, but he is completely under Wormtongue's sway. They all know it."

His words did not cheer Éomer up.

"And still… I wish I could have been at your side! Together we would have made that foul brood run. Not a single one of them would have returned to its master."

Théodred shook his head and sighed.

"I don't know, Cousin. The Worm's plan was faultless. I must admit that. Only now that it is too late can we comprehend its cunning. He and Saruman ordered their orcs to cross the plains exactly when they did because he knew that they would draw you north against Uncle's orders, which, of course, Gríma had suggested to him in the first place He knew that you would disregard them once you learned of the threat. At the same time, that cursed wizard summoned part of his forces to ambush me."

His tone became urgent.

"And it was an ambush, Éomer, do not let yourself be fooled into thinking that it was just one of their random attacks; they were sent to kill me. No matter what my men did, they charged right through them. They did not care for them. I was their target. There was nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. Even if you had been there… you would in all likelihood not have been able to change the outcome. And even worse: you could have died in that battle, as well. I'm not sure what those orcs would have done had they seen us close together. If a thousand Uruks focus on killing two specific men in a battle, there is nothing three or four éoreds can do to prevent that. They would have sacrificed their entire horde for the accomplishment of that aim."

Théodred fell silent, and his sombre gaze travelled over his fallen kinsmen. For a moment, Éomer could not think of an answer. His cousin had many more years of battle experience; he was known as one of the shrewdest strategists who had ever commanded the Rohirrim… and even he had been powerless against the last sword stroke. Eventually, the older man's attention returned to him.

"You cannot afford to torment yourself over this, Éomer. Put it behind you. Or use it to draw your motivation from it. That is all good. But right now, all your wit is needed to exact our revenge on that filth." A hard, questioning stare pierced him. "Tell me, Cousin, can I count on you? Will you avenge me?"

Éomer did not evade Théodred's gaze, but his own expression was less optimistic.

"You know that there is nothing I would like to do more, Théodred. Give me a knife and the Worm, and I will skin him alive… starting with his feet, and working my way upwards very slowly."

What a wonderful mental image that was… However, right now the reality was that he was the one who was bleeding.

"The tables have turned, though. They all believe that I did this to rid myself of you, because I want the throne for myself. And the few who are not certain yet are too craven to object… including the captains of the Royal Guard. They will wait and wait and wait until it is too late to act, even if they must be seeing where all this is leading to."

Éomer shook his head in frustration.

"I do not understand them anymore, Théodred. We used to be a brave people; a people unafraid of consequences whenever we witnessed an injustice. Whenever something was amiss, we would set it right, no matter how high the price for ourselves. When did that change, and how did Gríma accomplish that? How did he turn us into cravens?"

The man he regarded as his brother smiled at him compassionately, and reassurance lit up the Théodred's eyes as he laid a comforting hand onto his cousin's shoulder.

"I wish I could advise you, Éomer. Perhaps it helps you to know that you are not the only one who feels this way, and although it might feel like it these days, you are not the only one determined to fight against the traitor. There are others who will remain at your side until the end, whatever end that may be. You must seek them out now, and gather them. Rouse our people and lead them against Saruman and his minions. You will know what to do once the situation arises. Your best decisions were always made on the spur of the moment. Trust your instincts, Éomer, that is the best advice I can give you. Believe in yourself! In your hands, you hold nothing less than the fate of our people. You cannot afford to doubt now."

Éomer snorted, and deep furrows appeared on his brow.

"It might have escaped your attention, Cousin," he snapped. "But they've thrown me into the dungeon. And the way it looks, they are going to execute me in a few days. I am not free to do as I wish." Certainly. That was why he was standing here in the middle of the battlefield, and the crows passed over his head and quorked, quarreling for the best pieces of the carrion before they had even landed. This was getting confusing.

And yet the smile was still on Théodred's lips.

"You will find a way, Éomer. I have every confidence in you."

He paused and, drawing his eyebrows together, seemed to listen intently to something Éomer could not yet hear. But then the son of Éomund felt something - a soft, but persistent pull. Something dawned on him.

"Is this a dream?"

"Aye, Éomer. You are dreaming. But I fear that our time is up for now."

To Éomer's dismay, the pull intensified, threatening to carry him away.

"Théodred!" Already, his cousin seemed impossibly far away,

"I will be back, if you let me in again. Whatever help I can grant you, I am more than willing to give. Do not lose hope, Éomer, and do not forget: I trust in you!"

The soothing rushing of the water faded away and was replaced by the echo of distant steps. Hanging on to the sound of Théodred's voice until even the last vestige of it had vanished, Éomer opened his eyes… to the darkness of his cell, and grim reality.

With a deep sigh, the son of Éomund stared at the iron bars that blocked his view. For a moment, he lay motionless and listened into his body. During the long hours of his rest, the throbbing had ebbed away to a more tolerable level, although he suspected that any movement would change his condition just as quickly back to the way it had been when he had hung suspended in the air last night.

Cautiously, Éomer rolled his shoulders… and grimaced. Perhaps, the pain was not as bad as the night before, but it was still a long way from gone. He sat up. Slowly, deliberately, as to not awaken the beast that had taken up residence in his head since his clash with Felrod at the end of the hearing. Yet sure enough, a first wave of nausea assaulted him in reaction to his change of position, and he closed his eyes and breathed against it. A careful examination of the lump on the base of his skull revealed that it had gone down somewhat during the night, but he could still touch it only very gingerly.

With a resigned sigh, Éomer leant back against the wall and wrapped himself more tightly into the scratchy, stinking blanket. His thoughts returned to his nightly visitor, and a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Éowyn had taken a great risk to help him, and it was a comfort to know that at least someone stood still by his side after all the betrayals he had experienced the day before. Part of him was aching to see her again in the coming night, not least of all for the food she had brought him and without which, he would have been in a rather more precarious condition now… but even more so for the company and comfort she had offered him. And yet an even stronger part hoped that she had heeded his words and was already on the way to Aldburg. If only he could have believed it…

Éomer's expression darkened as he thought back to the moment when the Worm had asked him about the three travellers. The realization that someone in his éored had betrayed him had felt like a dagger to the guts. He wondered who it had been, and whether it had been only one of his riders… or had they all deserted him?

'Éothain would never desert me. – But wouldn't that endanger him, as well?'

For once, the son of Éomund was relieved to be woken from his dark musings by the sound of approaching steps. Not knowing what was to come, he pushed himself backwards, deeper into his cell, until his back touched the rear wall. If they wanted to beat him again, they would have to enter the cell. He braced himself for the coming confrontation.

It was Felrod. The big halfblood grinned as he came to a halt in front of the iron bars.

"Look who's already up! I guess you couldn't await this day, wondering what it has in store for you, forgoil bastard, isn't that so? Many wonderful things! Like… breakfast!"

He threw something into the cell. As it landed before him, Éomer saw that it was a fat rat with a broken spine. It was still moving and squeaking feebly as it slowly died. He narrowed his eyes, not wanting to let his disgust show.

"Leftovers from your own breakfast?" he asked instead. "How very kind… How is the rest of your ear, by the way? Rotting off?" With his chained hands, he picked up the piece he had bitten off his opponent's head, and threw it at him. "Here, this belongs to you."

The big man's piercing gaze skewered him.

"They are deciding about your fate right now, forgoil! This very moment!" he spat. "You can have a big mouth now, but in a few days, you will hang from the gallows and the crows will have their way with your rotting corpse. I'm sure that they will leave you dangling there until the last piece of flesh has been pecked from your bones, to remind the other strawheads of what awaits them if they don't obey."

"That may be so." Éomer answered the halfblood's gaze with a mocking stare of his own. "But even then you will still be the subservient lickspittle of a man half your size. A man who only uses you for his own ends, and who will give you the boot as soon as he reaches his aim. You're nothing but a dog to him. A dirt digger dumb enough to make promises to he never intends to keep for as long as he needs you. And you don't understand that. It would be tragic if it wasn't so amusingy."

He laughed… and was delighted to see Felrod's face turn dark with seething rage as the halfblood grabbed the bars with both hands.

"Can't get in to beat me up? Your Master has the only key?" Another laugh. "See what I mean?"

He was walking on the razor's edge here, aware that he would probably have to pay for his taunting later, but Béma, it felt so good to openly mock his opponent for a change! Hadn't Gríma complained about his lack of spunk only last night?

In barely suppressed rage, the big guard smashed his hands against the bars.

"I promised you great things for today, forgoil," he growled. "And I stand by that: what I did to you yesterday was child's play. Today… will be different."

"Your Master will never allow it, dog."

With an only halfway supressed roar, Felrod spat a yellow clot into his cell and left, fuming mad.

As his strength seeped away, Éomer gave up his body tension. He sagged against the wall, fingers clenched into the blanket. It was probably not smart what he had just done. But he had desperately needed this small victory. His mind and spirit had needed it. If he wanted to uphold at least a shred of his dignity and defiance, he could not allow for his last days to be lived in fear of punishment. If, up there in the council, they decided to hang him, he would walk to the gallows with his head held up high.

'How am I doing so far, Théodred? Are you satisfied?'


It was almost midday before Éowyn woke from a diffuse stream of nightmares and presentiments. She had made it through the tunnels, only to find her brother dangling from the ceiling of his cell, dead. And upon storming up the stairs to the hall, Gríma Wormtongue had sat there on the throne and declared himself King of the Mark, to the applause of the fully assembled Royal Guard and Small Council. Then there had been a dream where she had bumped into the Worm on her way through the darkness, the shock so great that it had woken her with a start. No, it had not been a restful night.

The daughter of Éomund turned on her back and stared at the ceiling with unseeing eyes, for a moment content with doing nothing. Béma knew she had worked hard these past hours, and hopefully, something good would result from it.

It had been obvious to her that her visit had lifted Éomer's spirits, even if the state she had found her brother in had shocked her. Despite his brave attempt to hide the true extent of his misery from her, each overly careful move had given true condition away. Likewise his rather short protest against her being there once she had passed him the food. Éowyn wished only that she could have brought him more. After the strenuous journey north and back with nothing to eat and drink but the contents of his saddle bags, the soup and wine had probably only sufficed to take the tip off the ravenous hunger and thirst he must have felt… and now she would have to wait all day again until she would feel safe enough to repeat her journey in the dark.

Which reminded her that she, too, was hungry.

With a deep sigh, Éowyn sat up and swung her legs over the side of her bed. It was most unusual that nobody had woken her yet, but perhaps they assumed that the past day's demands had exhausted her far beyond her limits. Which was not entirely untrue, even if her streak of defiance was still stronger.

Then she remembered: she had locked herself in last night, and the key was still in the lock. She had given them no chance to wake her. Oh well Éowyn thought as she rose to her feet, it was not as if the rest had not done her some good. She could not have dealt with another one of the Worm's surprise visits last night.

Quickly, Éowyn grasped her robe and walked over to the living chamber, slipping into the garment and fastening the belt around her slim waist along the way. With sudden hesitance, she unlocked the door and opened it. The hall… was nearly empty. There were only few members of the Royal Household too be seen around the hearth fire, one of whom was just jumping to her feet in response to her opened door. With quick steps, Maelwyn approached her, relief written all over her young face. She came to a stop and dropped into a quick curtsey.

"Good morning, my Lady. It is good to see you. I was beginning to worry that perhaps, you had fallen ill."

Éowyn gave her a short, appreciative nod.

"I am well, Maelwyn, thank you. Yesterday was quite demanding, so…" She interrupted herself and wrinkled her brow. "Where is everyone?"

Her handmaiden followed her gaze.

"Oh, they are all in the council chamber, my Lady. They have been there for quite some time." She inhaled and lowered her eyes as she beheld the increasing frown on her mistresses' face. Of course, it was her brother's fate which was being discussed behind these closed doors. Maelwyn could not begin to guess how that thought would feel. Perhaps, she could lift her lady's spirits with the prospect of food.

"May I bring you breakfast, my Lady? You must be hungry."

"Aye." At last, Éowyn's attention returned to her. "Aye, Maelwyn, I would appreciate that. And I would like some hot water, too."

"A bath, perhaps?"

"A bath?" It sounded tempting, but Éowyn remembered suddenly that Éothain and his father had promised to come and see her during the day. She had no idea when. She wanted to be available for them when they arrived. "No, not now. Later perhaps. Just let them bring enough for the morning toilet. Thank you."

With a last ruminative glance at the council chamber's door, Éowyn retreated into her own rooms.


"Gentlemen…" Gríma Wormtongue lifted his hands, effectively silencing the men at the round table, and his gaze travelled over their deeply concerned expressions.

"Gentlemen, we have been in this room the entire morning. We discussed yesterday's revelations at great length, as we did the letter of the Lord of Westfold earlier. I honestly do not believe that there will be any new developments in this matter now, and – to say it clearly – I do not believe that there is the need for an official trial. We learned everything we needed to hear straight from the horse's mouth yesterday. The Third Marshal of Riddermark admitted freely that all accusations against him are valid. He confessed his treasonous doings, and he called for rebellion right within this hall, before he attacked me with the attention to kill. We are in possession of all necessary information to reach a verdict. What say you?"

For a moment, the older men stared in silence at him… and then at each other.

"Forgo a trial?" Lord Aldhelm asked doubtfully. "But our law specifically calls for it. How could we ever justify this to the public?"

"We could declare yesterday's hearing a trial," Lord Aethelmaer, the oldest member of the council, suggested cautiously. "We certainly need no further witnesses to understand what happened. I would be content with this solution."

"So would I," the Master of Coin, Lord Eardbearth, declared, stroking his impressive grey beard. "And I would not worry about the people of Edoras – they are outraged by what the Marshal did. Any measure that will lead to a quick passing of judgment will find their consent. I am ready to render my verdict."

"Very well. Lord Aldhelm?" Gríma Wormtongue's gaze pierced the old man, who drew his eyebrows together.

"I must admit that I am not entirely satisfied with this suggestion, Lord Gríma."

"What is it that you still need to hear, Lord Aldhelm?" Wormtongue narrowed his eyes. "Is there still anything unclear for you? Or is your opposition only for protocol's sake?"

Oppressive silence ensued as all council members stared at the unwilling one in their midst. At last, Aldhelm breathed a sigh.

"Very well… If it is the wish of the other council members, I shall be ready to do my part in these proceedings."

Wormtongue nodded his approval, and turned around to his king with a curt incline of his head.

"Sire…may I ask for your rule? Should we schedule another - official - trial to hear again what was revealed to us last night… or would you like us to proceed with the finding of our verdict?"

For the longest time, Théoden did not react. The King of the Mark stared with unseeing eyes at a point somewhere far beyond the walls of the council chambers and gave no indication that he had heard his counsellor's question.

Wormtongue was just about to ask again when the old man's gaze found him.


Gríma was not certain that he liked the King's expression. Thengel's heir looked excruciated, as if the word he had uttered was causing him great pain. Or was the reason rather his deteriorating condition? In any case, it was time to bring this meeting to an end and secure his triumph.

"Thank you, Sire. So now, I am asking you, honoured members of the Small Council of Edoras, the following question: do you find Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of the Mark, guilty of treason against the Crown? Do you find him guilty of disobedience and rebellion against his superiors… and of the attempted murder of a high-ranking member of the Royal Household?" He inhaled deeply and lifted his right hand. "I do."

His piercing gaze travelled from face to face.

"I do," Lord Eardbearth declared first.

"I do," Lord Aethelmaer followed his example.

It was plain to see that it tore Aldhelm apart not to follow the proceedings that were clearly stated in their law, but at length, he too, uttered a low: "I do."

Satisfied, Wormtongue turned to the King.

"With this unanimous vote, my Lord, the decision is left to you. For protocol, let it be said that with your veto, you have the power to negate the Council's verdict." He inclined his head in an implied bow. This time, surprisingly, Théoden did not let him wait for long.

"I will not veto the Council's decision. My nephew is guilty of those crimes."

At last! His triumph was complete. A surge of adrenaline flooded Wormtongue's veins as he realised that, with the King's words, his goals had been achieved. For once, he found it difficult to keep the utter delight he felt out of his face. There was still something left to do, a final nail to be hammered into his adversary's coffin…

"I thank you, Sire," he said in a treacherously even voice. "I hereby declare that the Small Council of Edoras finds Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of Riddermark, guilty of the previously mentioned crimes. The sentence for treason… is death by hanging. Who of the honoured council members supports it?" He lifted his hand… and after a short period, found himself joined by the other attendees… except for the King. The King, who all of a sudden seemed increasingly stressed-out. Wormtongue was worried to see beads of sweat appear on the old man's brow, and his hands clenched the edge of the table.

"Sire? May we have your vote?"

Théoden's head turned to him with a jolt, and with dismay, Gríma realised what he was going to say even before he said it.

"You cannot kill him. You cannot kill Éomer. I forbid it!"


Chapter 19: Plotting

"But… Sire-"

"You heard me, Gríma!" The dismay in Théoden King's eyes was replaced by sudden rigour, and his tone grew firm. "My nephew will not be executed."

The council members looked at each other in growing confusion. Wormtongue narrowed his eyes in barely contained ire.

"Sire, we are talking about the man who put your son into his grave. Surely you do not want his betrayal to go unpunished?"

The milky blue eyes stared at him with previously unknown determination.

"I did not say that, Counsellor! Of course I want him punished… just not killed."

"Then how else would you want the Third Marshal to be punished for such a capital crime, my King?"

Gríma's calm tone stood in stark contrast to the building feeling of frustration and uneasiness, and instinctively, his fingers went up to massage his bruised and hurting throat. After all the work he had put into bending the King of the Mark to his will, where was Théoden's sudden opposition coming from? Was it a last rest of his old self that reacted to the extreme prospect of sending his nephew to his death… or was there something else at work? Had someone else interfered? But how?

"Would you like for Éomer to spend the rest of his life behind bars? Surely you do not want him whipped and then set free, able to do further damage to the Mark?... My Lord King?"

"Sire, if I may…The law gives us another option!"

Of course, it was Lord Aldhelm, that troublesome old geezer, who spoke up. Gríma struggled to hold back his indignation over the old man's interference as he claimed Théoden King's attention.

"Yes, Lord Aldhelm?"

"Sire, there is no doubt that the Third Marshal's crime was grave, and therefore, his punishment must be severe, to send a clear signal to the people of Riddermark that rebellion does have consequences. If you do not want for your nephew to be executed… there is only one other option open, apart from keeping him in a cell for the rest of his life, which probably no one really wants. Instead of killing him, he could be banished."

"Banished?" Théoden narrowed his eyes. Aldhelm nodded eagerly, for once ignoring Wormtongue's dark stare.

"Aye, Sire. Forced to leave the Mark in an appropriate amount of time, under pain of death should he ever be seen again in our realm after that term. His name will be obliterated from our country's history." Hoping for approval, the old council member looked around. The son of Galmod shot him an eloquent glance.

"And you seriously believe that the son of Éomund would leave the Mark if we gave him, let's say, five days to disappear? That he would leave behind his sister and his friends and admitted defeat? That he would go peacefully and carry on with his life somewhere else? Is that what you truly believe, Lord Aldhelm?" A side-glance met Théoden King to let his ruler know what he thought about the counsellor's suggestion.

To his growing annoyance, the old council member did not shrink from his challenge.

"The Third Marshal knows from own experience how well-guarded our borders are. And he would be aware of the fact that, if any of our éoreds spotted him, he would be a dead man."

"And yet, as a Marshal of the Armed Forces, the son of Éomund also knows how to avoid being seen, Lord Aldhelm," Gríma sneered. "The usual patrol routes are deeply engraved into his memory, having guarded them himself for all these past years. Alas, I fear that he would know only too well how to sneak back in and wreak havoc… all the more as I do not feel too certain about the Eastmark's loyalty. Marshal Elfhelm has been like a surrogate father to him; I would not be surprised if he were, indeed, open to the idea of rebellion against the Crown. Instead of ridding ourselves of the relatively small problem Éomer poses now, we might make it infinitely worse by allowing him to live. If we do not put out this fire right now, the entire East-Mark might rise against us."

His bruised throat started to hurt in earnest again. It was time to bring this meeting to an end before he lost his voice.

"The East-Mark might also rise against us if we execute their beloved marshal!" Aldhelm insisted, earning himself his opponent's heartfelt disgust. "I'm not certain how they would take it. Not at all!"

"I stand by my decision: Éomer is not to be killed," Théoden repeated. A firm look found his counsellor, who once again asked himself where the King had found this new energy. Certainly, it was not a result of the potion he had given him just this morning. "Lord Aldhelm's suggestion makes sense to me, although I also do share Counsellor Gríma's concerns. There must be a way, however, to prepare the banishment-scenario to the point where it works."

"I am quite certain that it could be done without greater problems," Aldhelm concurred with a satisfied glance at Wormtongue. "Independent… observers… could be distributed to those settlements whose loyalty might be questionable, to report back to us and ensure that the Marshal will receive no help from potential perpetrators. That way, beginning conspiracies could be discovered before they gained strength."

Wormtongue could see where this meeting was going. Very well, it made no difference. His plan to rid himself of his worst enemy could easily be altered. Instead of killing the son of Éomund right before the people's eyes, which might have served as a splendid reminder to anyone feeling equally disposed to causing problems, he would see to it that the troops he had at his disposal would find and finish Éomer off in secrecy. He could live with that. After all, Saruman was already amassing his army for the final strike against the Mark, and soon, none of the Armed Forces would have the time to think about rebellion… or be alive to consider it. It was only a matter of weeks now. He inhaled.

"Very well… If that is indeed your wish, Sire, I shall be happy to organise it for you."

For a moment, Gríma felt Aldhelm's suspicious glance upon himself over his sudden approval. He did not care. Théoden granted him a curt nod.

"How quickly can it be realised?"

"I will get to work right away once this meeting is over, my King. I will put down your orders in writing, and should be able to send out the errand riders within the next two hours. That way, if we release your nephew from the dungeon the day after tomorrow, all settlements along his way will already be informed. Whoever is found helping the marshal, will be facing the hangman's noose."

He looked around and found nothing but approval in the faces before him.

"Very well. Then I hereby declare this meeting over."

Théoden pushed back his chair to rise to his feet, and at long last, Wormtongue was relieved to catch the first signs of exhaustion in his ruler's bearings. It seemed as if only the extreme situation had lent the old man additional strength, and now that it had been solved to his satisfaction, it was fleeing him just as quickly. There had been no miracle cure. Although the question remained why Théoden-King had so vehemently rejected the idea of his nephew's execution. He had almost seemed dismayed by the thought, when he should have been glad to bring his son's murderer to justice.

"Would you like to tell me the phrasing for those messages, Sire, or do you trust me to draft them by myself?"

It was amazing how quickly the king's condition seemed to deteriorate now. Wormtongue was aware of the fact that the other council members had noticed that, as well, and hesitated to leave.

"I have every confidence in you, Gríma. I trust that you will find the right words. Alas, I fear the long hours in this room have worn me out. I need to lie down."

"Would you like me to help you to your chambers, Sire?"

With a small wave of his hand, Théoden stopped him, a thankful, but tired expression upon his face as he leant heavily on the table.

"I will manage, thank you. It is time for the members of my household to see me on my own feet again for a change."

"Just as you like, my Lord. Surely they will be glad to see your health improved."

"May I accompany you, Sire?" Lord Eardbearth offered. "Just in case? I'm in no hurry."

"I will not say no to that, Lord Eardbearth." A last, brief glance found his right hand. "You may wake me if something needs my attention, Gríma."

"I am certain that will not be necessary, my Lord. At last, it would seem that all things are finally under our control."

Wormtongue inclined his head in an implied bow, and waited until the others had left the room before he began to gather his notes. He would write those messages in his study. Another big step to be taken on his road to victory… and yet he could not help it, his mind turned back once again to the king's surprisingly vehement veto.

It could not be that the marshal's sister had anything to do with that, could it? What had Éowyn discussed with the old man after they had thrown him out of the king's chambers that almost forgotten morning a few days ago? The proud daughter of Éomund had almost stormed out not long after he had sat down by the hearth; her expression despite her best efforts of hiding her inner turmoil telling of great distress. And Théoden himself had seemed thoroughly shocked when Gríma had returned to discuss his nephew's fate with him, although he had refused to share the reason for his dismay to this very day.

Not that it mattered. In a few days, Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of the Mark, nephew of Théoden King and heir to the throne of Rohan would be history, and there would be nobody left to deny him what he wanted…


In her chambers, Éowyn sat by the window and fought with her breakfast. Torn between the contradicting impulses to jump to her feet and do whatever she could to help her brother, and the knowledge that – in order to do this most efficiently – she needed her wits and her strength about her, the daughter of Éomund forced herself to dig into her bowl of porridge. Yet it seemed to her that every spoonful grew to monstrous proportions in her mouth before she could finally swallow it.

How was Éomer faring right now? Had he been able to resume sleeping in that cold cell, dispirited, beaten and abused? And would the Worm at least grant him some food today? Despite of what her brother had asked of her, she did not think about leaving him behind for her own safety. It was not even a question. Tonight, she would try once again to bring him food, no matter what Éomer thought about it.

The true question for now was: was there something else she could do for him? Éowyn could not deny that her brother's condition had shocked her. Never before had she seen Éomer so frail and miserable, and she was afraid that Wormtongue and his brutish minion would pay him another visit today, to continue what they had begun. How could she prevent that? Certainly not by complaining about her brother's state to the King or the Royal Guard. Not without giving herself away. But perhaps… she could point them that way? Surely, it would not wake anyone's suspicion if she inquired about Éomer's condition after having been forced to witness how he was beaten unconscious only last night?

Making a mental note to herself to find Háma before she left the Golden Hall, Éowyn had leant back in her chair, and the frown upon her delicate features became even more pronounced. Previously, she had always felt more inclined to bring her problems to Gamling, but she knew no longer what to think about the other Captain of the Royal Guard. It had been obvious last night that Éomer had asked for his support shortly before he attacked Wormtongue. There had been a moment of silent communication between them. And yet the old man had done nothing. He had forsaken her brother, and at the moment, Éowyn could not find it in herself to forgive him. Of course, Háma had likewise remained passive, but at least, he had explained himself to her… with clearly audible regret in his voice. Which did not make his betrayal much better… but perhaps, he would feel more inclined to pursue her request.

A strong gust howled outside her window and roused her out of her bleak considerations for a moment. It could no longer be denied that the predicted storm was well underway. Snowflakes were driven against the glass and blown away just as quickly, and the grey sky behind it promised even more. The temperatures had also dropped further since last night, Éowyn surmised. She felt cold even though she had only recently stoked the fire in the hearth. If she was already freezing up here in her chambers, how cold was it in the dungeon now?

'Oh Brother…'

It was time to get moving. Each moment she wasted sitting idly here only thinking about Éomer's predicament, meant that he suffered. She could not allow that. Resolutely, Éowyn sat down the only half-finished bowl of porridge, and pushed back the chair to rise to her feet.

There was also something else she needed to do, preparations to be taken in case it really came to the worst and she would have to fulfil her oath. She was determined to follow through on her threat, and it had not even been a hard decision to make. If their uncle truly ordered Éomer's execution, there would be nothing left to live for her… only more torment by the Worm. More difficult had been to decide on a way to do it, but at last, the daughter of Éomund believed to have found one.

With a deep breath, Éowyn turned to go. In a way, she dreaded to leave the temporary sanctuary of her chambers, but it was time to get things done before Éothain and his father arrived at the hall. With some luck, the Worm would still be in the council meeting.

Gathering her warm winter coat, Éowyn opened the door… to an almost empty hall. Relieved, she slipped through the opening and closed it behind herself, her gaze already searching for the burly Captain of the Royal Guard. Yet it was Gamling she detected in the twilight before the King's chambers, his attention already roused. For a moment, their eyes locked, and even over the distance, Éowyn thought she saw the self-loathing in the old man's expression.

Pointedly, she looked away. There was nothing she could do for him. And nothing that she wanted to do. If Gamling felt miserable, it was because he had done a horrible thing. She would not absolve him.

Slipping into her coat, Éowyn turned toward the massive doors and granted the door wards a curt nod when the young men opened them for her. The icy wind assaulted her at once, and she hurried to put up her fur-lined hood. Blinking against the onslaught of the snow, she turned her back into the gusts and felt herself shoved forward by their sheer force.

"Lady Éowyn?" The Captain of the Royal Guard was clad into a thick green cloak and looked half-frozen. He held out a steadying hand for her, which she gratefully accepted. "This is no weather to be outside, my Lady."

"Yet it is bound to get even worse, Háma, isn't it?" she replied with a dark glance at the grey sky. The big warrior nodded.

"Alas, it looks that way. They say that this might be the last great storm of the winter. I certainly hope so; it is really time for spring to arrive." He eyed her curiously. "Is there anything I can do for you, my Lady? Some errand to be seen to? Surely you do not want to walk down into the city in this weather."

"There is indeed, Háma." A cautious glance at the other guards. The big halfblood was not among them. That was good. She turned her back on the other men and lowered her voice. "I am worried about Éomer. The last time I saw him, he was unconscious. And it will be freezing cold in the dungeon. I was wondering whether you could go and see what his condition is. I am not convinced that Gríma's guards took very good care of him." She swallowed. "Please?"

Although his hood hid part of his face, Éowyn could already see the expression on the warrior's face, and her heart sank. It was an apologetic one.

"I wished that I could do that for you, my Lady, but it was decreed only last night that only the counsellor and his private guards were allowed access to the dungeon for as long as your brother is there."

She shot him an incredulous stare.

"By whom?"

"By the King himself… upon Gríma's insistence." Háma shook his head. "Perhaps, if you asked him yourself…"

Éowyn furrowed her brow.

"After what happened last night? You heard him with your own ears, Háma! He threatened me when I would not step away from Éomer. He implied that he would have to treat me like a traitor, as well, if I insisted on remaining by my brother's side. Do you honestly believe he would allow me to see him?" She lowered her voice even further, to the point where the warrior had to lean forward to understand her words over the wind. "And if no one else is allowed to visit Éomer, do you not ask yourself what terrible things they might be doing to him down there? Do you not think that the Worm would want to pay my brother back for all the problems Éomer has caused him over the past years, before the execution? Especially for his assault last night? What if he tortured him in his cell? No one would know about it."

The Captain of the Royal Guard stared at her in horror.

"Alas, I am afraid that your fears are justified, my Lady. I certainly would not put it beyond him."

"And do you believe that that would be done to Éomer in the King's name? That my uncle would specifically order for his nephew to be tortured?"

Háma took a deep breath… and narrowed his eyes as he cast a dark glance at the door behind his back. When he turned his attention back at her, Éowyn knew that she had won.

"Very well, my Lady. I will try to see your brother. But I'm afraid that I cannot give you any promises. The situation is rather…unusual." He snorted in frustration.

"I understand that. And I thank you, Háma." Éowyn gave the man's arm an affectionate squeeze. "It is good to know that there are still some people in this household, for whom common decency is not an unknown term."

From the guard towers below, the permeating sound of horns reached their ears over the roaring wind, commanding their attention.

"Riders," Háma noted, his eyes narrowed against the onslaught of the snow. "That should be the rest of your brother's éored, my Lady. I suppose they were informed about the state of affairs on the road to Westfold and returned to meet here, before they continue to Aldburg."

Éowyn inhaled. The riders' return meant probably that Éothain would wait to inform them about the latest happenings before he visited her. So there was still time to see to the fulfilment of the other half of her plans. She turned to go.

"Lady Éowyn?" the Captain of the Royal Guard inquired, confused. "It is really not the weather to be outside needlessly. If there is something else you want done, can I not send someone for you?"

With a faint smile upon her lips, Éowyn shook her head.

"I will not be gone for long, Captain. And I doubt that my horse would be allowed in the Golden Hall."

The big man returned her smile, relieved.

"Alas, I, too, believe, that this would be problematic."

Éowyn turned away and descended the stairs to the path with quick steps. Aye, she would visit her mount again… but her true destination was the smithy in the stable yard. Or rather, the house nearby, where their blacksmith Bergfinn lived with his wife Yalanda… their healer. Somewhere in her drawers and shelves, the old woman was bound to have the solution to her problem…


Chapter 21: No Easy Answers

Éomer had no idea what time of the day it was. Down here in the hill's intestines, in the weak light of the torches, the hours passed indiscriminately, one like the other. The only measure he had to judge for how long he had already inhabited his cell were hunger and thirst. After the unexpected meal Éowyn had provided him with only last night, his most urgent needs had been quenched for a while. But now his stomach felt like the burning centre of the world again, and thirst had overtaken the various aches of his body as the worst torture. His mouth was dry as paper, every swallow hurt, and in addition to the insistent hammering originating from the top of his skull, a dull, throbbing pain had developed right behind his brow in response to the lack of fluid in his body.

For how long was the Worm planning to keep this up? And where were Aragorn and his companions? Already on the way to Edoras? Still searching for their missing friends in the north? Or had they already encountered his adversary's forces… to a bad end? With an only half suppressed grunt, Éomer shifted his position. He refused to believe that any force that scarecrow could muster was able to overcome the heir of Isildur. From what he had been able to gather during their brief encounter, the three warriors had made it from the far north all the way down to the Mark through uncounted perils. They would not fall prey to a ragtag horde of wild men.

'Where are you to give me some words of encouragement when I most need them, Théodred? You were always there for me before…'

Once again, his cousin's face materialised before his inner eye. His easy smile, the compassion in his blue eyes when he had comforted them after their parent's death. The concentration and urgency whenever Théodred had laid down his battle plans to their riders. Many times, their éored had joined his cousin's in their forays, and they had fought side by side with the greatest efficiency. Those had been the greatest days.

Most of the things Éomer knew about warfare, he had learned from either Elfhelm or his cousin. Battle strategy, weaponry, scouting… Whatever it had been Théodred had discussed with them by the campfire, Éomer had absorbed it all, endlessly fascinated by the older man's observations and wisdom. He had no doubt that Théodred was in large parts responsible for his fast rise through the ranks, from innocent recruit to shrewd Third Marshal of Riddermark.

Yet there had also been dark days. The problems Éowyn and he had faced upon their relocation to Edoras – the loss not only of their parents, but also of their friends. Homesickness, the feeling of not belonging. Théodred had been endlessly patient with them. Despite his busy schedule whenever he was in Edoras, short days packed with endless council meetings and strategic discussions with the other captains of the Armed Forces, Théodred had always taken time out to make himself available for his cousins, quickly becoming an older brother for the siblings.

And Théodred had taken his side whenever Wormtongue had disparaged him in front of the King. He had not only not believed the blunt accusations that everything Éomer did was for his own ends and that he craved to rob his cousin of the throne of the Mark, no. Théodred had stood up to the Worm in many heated confrontations when even his father had seemed doubtful. He had been an unwavering, loyal friend, a brother in all but blood… and now he was gone.

With a deep sigh, the son of Éomund leant back and massaged his throbbing brow. For the first time since they had thrown him into this cell, he felt utterly and truly alone. The men on whose loyalty he had counted – his éored, the Royal Guard – had decided to throw him to the wolves. Whether they actually believed the Worm's accusations or had remained passive out of fear did not matter to him. There and then, they had been presented with the chance to free the Mark of its oppressor. Instead, they had chosen to rid themselves of their protector.

Éomer snorted. It was beyond him how anyone could be so shortsighted. Was it not obvious to them that Wormtongue would not be done after he had ridded himself of two of the Mark's mightiest man? Was it not obvious that he would not rest until he had replaced each and every man of power with one of his minions? Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, the warriors of the Royal Guard would share his experience in the dungeon, if they were not killed outright once the Worm had positioned his forces for the final blow. They would realise their mistake then. But then, it would be too late.

His train of thought was interrupted by the sound of the dungeon door. Éomer tensed and listened, not daring to hope. Someone was coming down the stairs. The Worm and his Dunlending dog again? Or was it Háma or Gamling, coming to end his ordeal and make amends?

'Béma, what are you dreaming of?'

With a self-deprecating snort, Éomer settled back against the rock. Now that the steps were closer, it was clear to him who his visitors were. Once again, he braced for what was to come. Would they beat him again? But no, surely in this case, the Worm would have brought more men with him. If only Felrod was accompanying him, he probably did not intend to open the cell door. Had something happened the filth wanted to tell him right away? Had someone died, or had there been another disastrous attack? Or had his men met with Aragorn and his companions and, against all probability, emerged victorious from the fight? Béma forbid, it could not be…

The shadows of the two men preceded them as they approached his cell. One of them seemed to… carry a tray? Éomer furrowed his brow. Was he hallucinating now? The next moment, his observation was confirmed when Gríma appeared on the other side of the bars, followed by his Dunlending guard… and indeed, the big man was carrying a tray, from where the smell of soup wafted into his cell. To his anger, his stomach reacted instantly with a demanding rumble and betrayed his disposition to his enemy.

The sound brought a thin smirk to the Worm's pale features as he came to a stop before the iron bars.

"You seem to be hungry, Marshal. How convenient."

The halfblood's towering shape appeared behind him, a sullen expression upon his broad face as he stared at their prisoner. Éomer granted him a brazen grin, surmising from the big man's bearing that he had asked for retribution for the past morning's insult and been denied. And now, adding insult to injury, the Worm seemed to even have him reduced to the status of a serving wench. If that wasn't something to gloat over!

"Despite the punishment last night, you appear to be in high spirits today, Éomer son of Éomund." If Gríma had noticed the silent duel between his guard and his prisoner, he did not show it. "That is good to see. I might even be able to improve your mood further."

"Certainly," Éomer turned his attention to the scrawny counsellor. "For example, you could draw your dagger and fall on it. That would improve my mood permanently."

The Worm did not honour his quip with a reply. Instead, he lifted a hand, and only now Éomer saw that his adversary held a piece of clothing in it. One of his shirts, by the look of it. He furrowed his brow. What game was Wormtongue playing now?

"You see what I have here, Marshal?" To Éomer's surprise, Gríma threw it into his cell. It landed in front of his feet. "Put it on. It is too cold down here to have you sitting around half-naked. And we could hardly lead you to court bare-chested. The honourable members of our council would get a fit."

Éomer narrowed his eyes.

"So you have come to get me for the trial? With only your Dunlending dog to protect you from me?" He could see the effect of his insult on the big man's face.

"Oh, there will be no trial," Gríma said evenly.

"What?" Éomer inhaled. It was the law, wasn't it? The trial would have given him additional time, time for Aragorn and his companions to arrive and turn the tide.

"Graciously, you already supplied us with all the information we needed to reach a verdict. What else would there be to discuss to reach the conclusion that you are guilty of every crime we accused you of?" He shrugged. "The verdict has already been spoken, Éomer son of Éomund. There is no need for anything else. Two days from now, the sentence will be carried out."

His words punched the air from Éomer's lungs. For the longest time, the son of Éomund could only stare back at his torturer, distantly aware of the fact that it was Felrod now who grinned at him with all the malice he could muster. At last, the ability to speak returned to him.

"So… this is my last meal?" He nodded at the tray, desperate to hide his upwelling emotions from his nemesis.

"That depends on your behaviour," Wormtongue elaborated calmly. Very obviously, he was enjoying himself very much. "Cooperate and eat, or play the stubborn mule as usual, and go to your grave hungry and thirsty. The choice is yours."

"And what is it that you want me to do in exchange for it?"

"Nothing more than that you put on that shirt… without causing the usual problems. I do realise, of course, that you cannot put it on with your wrists chained. Thus my suggestion is that you come forth to the bars and Felrod opens them. You slip on your shirt, get the handcuffs back on… and only then will you receive the contents of this tray." Gríma lifted the drinking glass and spilled a few drops of its precious contents to the floor, causing Éomer almost bodily pain at the sight of the wasted fluid. A thin smile appeared on his pale lips. "I do realise, of course, that – by this time – you must probably be quite thirsty."

Shooting his adversary daggers of pure hatred, Éomer contemplated his options. Having his wrists unchained might present him with an opportunity to… what? Free himself? Hardly. From the Worm's description, he did not get the understanding that the door to his cell would be opened. Wormtongue himself would, in all likelihood, stay away from the bars as far as possible, probably with the keys to the door in his pocket. If he grabbed Felrod while the filth opened the cuffs, all he could hope to gain was snap the halfblood's neck, and even that was questionable given his current condition. He would not get out, he would not escape. He would not be able to kill his enemy. And all that for the price of freezing and further torture by hunger and thirst. It was not a question at all.

Swallowing his pride, Éomer struggled to his feet… with far more difficulties than he would have liked to admit. For a moment, dizziness threatened to overwhelm him, and he closed his eyes and leant heavily against the wall, while he waited for the cell to stop spinning. No, it was indeed impossible that he would be able to take on Felrod in this condition. Best to get through with this as quickly as he could.

With slow, deliberate movements, he bent down to lift up the shirt and then trudged toward the cell door. For once, his adversaries remained silent, and Éomer was thankful for that. His weakness dismayed him. Was it only the lack of food, or was it the result of the beating? What a sorry sight he would be for the people of Edoras if he staggered to the gallows like this. Hopefully, Éowyn would not be there to witness it. At last, he reached the iron bars and grabbed them, thankful for something solid to hold on to.

"Make one false move, strawhead, and you are going to regret it," Felrod growled. He set down the tray and suddenly seemed tense as he dug the keys out of his pocket, apparently not trusting their prisoner as far as he could spit. Under different circumstances, Éomer would have found his adversary's unease amusing. As it was, he already had his hands full with remaining upon his feet.

"Aye. I understood that," he mumbled, more to himself than to the Halfblood. The first lock opened, then the second. Hesitant at first to relinquish his hold on the iron bars, Éomer pulled the cuffs from his arms and gritted his teeth. Angry red circles remained where the material had deeply bitten into his flesh the night before. He slipped into his shirt, careful not to lose balance… and remained motionless while the Dunlending chained him up again. The sound of the closing locks unleashed a terrible feeling of finality and desperation in him. Had this been his one chance to free himself?

With an amused snort, the Halfblood stepped back from the door.

"Hard to believe that this should be the mighty Third Marshal of Riddermark," he sneered. "It seems I managed to beat some respect into you last night, after all!"

As much as Éomer would have liked to spit into the man's face, his mouth was too dry.

"You will get your comeuppance, dog. Don't worry." He breathed hard against the nausea. "Someone will stick his sword into you very soon, and you will die a wretched death."

"Not as wretched as your death, forgoil!" Felrod could spit, and he did so. "I cannot wait to see you wriggling like a worm on a hook while the sling slowly strangles you. It will be the sweetest moment of my life!"

"Felrod?" Gríma narrowed his eyes. Reluctantly, the Halfblood turned around. "Leave. Your work here is done."

The big man took a deep breath, and for a moment, words of objection seemed to lie upon his tongue… Yet when his angry glare met his master's unperturbed gaze, he swallowed them, and – with a last sinister glance at the prisoner – disappeared down the corridor. For a moment, silence ensued… then Wormtongue shoved the tray closer to the cell with his foot, where Éomer would be able to reach it.

"I will kindly overlook this exchange," he said. "Here is your reward, son of Éomund. Ration it well, for you will not get anything else until tomorrow."

Éomer's gaze briefly brushed over the tray. It was not terribly much that the Worm bestowed upon him, and yet he was surprised and did not understand.

"Why?" he groaned and slowly allowed himself to slip down to the floor. "Why are you doing this?"

His nemesis shrugged.

"I will not risk that anyone amongst the Royal Guard takes pity on you when they see you like this. And I will not risk that you die of exposure. It would be too easy a death for you."

For a moment, his pale eyes impaled his adversary… but suddenly, he turned his head, and a frown appeared upon his face as he stared into the darkness behind the torches' reach. He took a few steps into the direction of the tunnel… and then turned back to Éomer, who had followed his gaze with a sense of foreboding.

"It seems that I forgot something last night," Wormtongue stated evenly. "Very well. It will not happen again. If you believe that help will arrive for you from that direction, you are grievously mistaken, son of Éomund. You better pray that none of your friends try it, or I'll have them executed right here before your eyes… Enjoy your meal."

With those words, he left, and all that Éomer could do was sit on the ground and stare into the flickering light while the Worm's threat echoed through his mind.

"Please, Béma… I never asked for much, but… make Éowyn leave!'


The weather had further deteriorated when Éowyn returned from her foray, satisfied with what she had achieved so far. In the pocket of her coat, her right hand closed around a small phial. It was her way out of the worst case-scenario, a last act of defiance open to her before all that she feared became reality.

Their healer, who had given her the potion – which was commonly used as a sleeping draught - had no idea what she had done, of course. Yalanda had handed the phial over to her with her usual words of warning: "No more than three drops, my Lady. Please keep this in mind. Anything more will make you very sick. It could even kill you. I am very reluctant to give you this."

And yet the old woman had understood her plea, for how was anyone supposed to sleep soundly if a member of their family was thrown into a cell and threatened with the prospects of execution? The tidings of last night's hearing had spread through Edoras like a wildfire, and in the end, had helped the daughter of Éomund to achieve what she had sought. Now for the next thing that needed her attention…

But Háma was no longer at the door when she approached Meduseld. Was he asking the Worm for permission to see Éomer right now? Nodding her thanks to the doorwards, Éowyn stepped into the hall, glad to be out of the savage wind. A quick glance around did not reveal anything suspicious to her. Gríma was still nowhere to be seen, and so it was with a feeling of vague relief that she crossed the great hall over to her chambers. Yet just before she could slip inside, Éowyn heard the sound of approaching steps behind her. With sudden dread, she turned around – but it was only Gamling. Apparently, the Captain of the Royal Guard had waited for her, and his gaze was urgent as he came to a halt before her, indicating a bow.

"Apologies, my Lady, but may I have a word with you?" he asked, and it was easy to guess what he wanted to discuss with her. Éowyn inhaled, and her expression told the old warrior clearly how ambivalent she felt towards him.

"I have barely returned, Lord Gamling," she replied in a frosty voice, and saw that it hurt the man she had, not long ago, treated as her confidante. "I am cold and hungry. Whatever it is you want to tell me, it will have to wait." She reached for the doorhandle.

"It will not take long, my Lady... and this is a favourable opportunity. He is not here…"

Éowyn narrowed her eyes as she turned her head. What was this supposed to mean? She decided to be honest.

"I will not lie, Lord Gamling: I am not much inclined to hear you out after what you did to my brother yesterday. He counted on you, and you betrayed him."

The old warrior lowered his head. His voice was but a whisper.

"Please, Lady Éowyn, can we not lead this discussion in the safety of your chambers?"

With a deep breath and an only half-suppressed sigh, Éowyn opened the door and stepped through, indicating for Gamling to follow her inside. Leaving the phial in the pocket of her coat, she slipped out of it and laid it over a chair before she turned around.

"Well?" Never before had she seen the Captain of the Royal Guard so miserable. 'Good!' she thought. 'He deserves it.'

"My Lady," Gamling began. "I caught that glance you gave me when you left… and I think that, perhaps, there is something you forgot."

Furrows appeared upon Éowyn's brow.

"Éomer asked for your loyalty last night, Captain. You denied it to him at a most critical time and handed the scourge of the Mark victory on a plate. What else is there that matters?"

"Your uncle." Gamling stepped closer. "The King."

Éowyn shook her head.

"I do not understand."

"Théoden-King is still very weak. He has not yet fully recuperated from the last time Gríma withheld his potion from him. Had I followed your brother's call, with all of the Royal Guard following my example, what would have ensued?" He stared at her, urgency written on his weathered features. He desperately wanted her to understand… but she couldn't comply.

"Freedom for the Mark?" she answered sharply. "The end of our darkest days? No more lies and oppression and scheming beneath our roof?"

Gamling shook his head.

"Perhaps… but at the price of your uncle's life. We still do not know how to offset the effect of Gríma's potion. Are you ready to sacrifice him? Already? You told me only these past days that your uncle is still living within this body. That you have seen him and talked with him for brief moments, whenever the influence of the poison had weakened."

Éowyn swallowed and her eyes began to burn, as much as she hated it.

"All I know is that I am not ready to sacrifice my brother, Lord Gamling. You said that you would make up your mind about Éomer's guilt after you saw his reaction to our cousin's death. Well, you saw it now. What conclusion did you draw from it? Did my brother look like a man satisfied with the results of his deeds to you? Did he only pretend to be pained by the news of Théodred's death?"

The warrior lowered his gaze.

"I do not believe that your brother intended the terrible outcome of his actions, no. I could even see the sense in his explanation for his decision to disobey the Prince's summons. But clearly, by withholding vital information about of those men he encountered and his decision to let them pass, he violated one of our most important laws."

"You heard him," Éowyn countered. "He explained why. And wasn't his reason for doing so what all of us would have wished for all these dark, long years? A means to the Worm's end? You should have thanked him; instead, you stabbed a dagger into his back!"

She saw the man before her flinch, realising that she had hurt him. Gamling straightened.

"You want to help your brother, my Lady, and I understand that. I also understand that it must be hard to choose between your uncle and your brother. And yet I ask you to also regard my point of view. I served your uncle for most of my life. I went into battle with him when he was still a young man, before he became our king. We saved each other's lives many times. I cannot simply give up on him. Not before everything else has been tried."

"Then you prioritise the life of one man over the lives of many? A man who has lived his life? Is he more important than those who still have most of it before them?"

Gamling stared at her, not wanting to believe what she had just said.

"This is your uncle we are talking about, Lady Éowyn. Your uncle! The man who raised you after your parents died! You fought so hard for his life only a few days ago, and now…" He shook his head in consternation.

Éowyn lifted her chin. Her expression was sad, but determined.

"Aye, Lord Gamling. I did. But now I find myself at a crossroads: I have to choose between the two only remaining members of my family. It is a choice I wish on no one. It is the most excrutiating thing I have ever been forced to do." She swallowed. "However, it is also a choice that will determine the fate of the Mark. My brother stands for its protection. He will tear himself in two to ensure that our people are safe. In fact, he just did. You cannot dispute that."

Her piercing gaze tore into the old warrior's eyes and held them. Gamling remained silent.

"My uncle, however… Gríma Wormtongue turned him into the Mark's bane. With the help of his potions, he broke Théoden-King's will and imposed his own upon him. You know that. And if you allow him to carry on with this until he has eliminated every single protector of our realm… you are part of the problem, my Lord."

Her words left the Captain of the Royal Guard speechless. For a while, silence stretched between them as they regarded each other. The tension of the confrontation seeped from Éowyn, leaving her feeling thoroughly drained.

"It seems that you, too, have a choice to make, Lord Gamling. And you will need to make it quickly, before one of the two options is gone for good… That is all I have to say. Now, please excuse me, I need to rest… and send me Maelwyn when you see her."

The man she had trusted for most of her life still stared at her with dread in his eyes. Éowyn understood him, but there was nothing she could do for him. At last, the time had come for each member of the Royal Court to make their choice.

With a deep breath, the Captain of the Royal Guard turned around and left.


Chapter 22: Desperate Measures

It was with the heaviest of hearts that Éothain went to meet his éored by the stables. Even though the men who had arrived earlier with Éomer and him had already heard some of the rumours that had flooded Edoras after the hearing, he had called them all together, and not only that, but his father's riders would be there, as well. Rumours needed to be turned into facts in order for them to act. He did not look forward to the meeting, and if his father's brooding expression was any indication, he surmised that it was no different for him.

The men would be shocked to hear what had happened, and they would demand answers. They would ask what their Captains were planning to remedy the situation, and Éothain hated the thought that he would have to tell them to stay put for the moment. It felt too much like cowardice… and betrayal, for how could they even hesitate a moment to run up that hill and free their commander?

Tilting his head back to look into the heavily clouded night sky, Éothain blinked the snowflakes away. Amidst all these heavy tidings and misery, he was glad that they had at least made it back from the north before the storm. If what he had heard was to be believed, a full-blown blizzard was on their way, and for a while, all movement within their realm would come to a stop… including the return of the three travellers Éomer counted on. They would not be able to ride through a white-out on the plains, risking to get lost and potentially freeze to death.

"I think you should address the men, son," Céorl spoke into his gloomy thoughts. "After all, Éomer is your commander. Just keep in mind what we discussed last night."

"Aye, Father." Éothain sighed. "Even if it feels wrong."

"Wrong would be to charge up the hill headlong and incite civil war on the spur of the moment. It would probably mean having to fight – and kill - the Royal Guard. We cannot do this. I thought we agreed on that."

"We did. It is only that I hate to wait while Éomer is suffering."

They rounded the corner to the stable yard and saw a throng of riders making for the meeting point. The stable would be filled to its full capacity with everybody attending, and Céorl had instructed beforehand for the personnel to grant them privacy for at least half an hour. Many uncertain glances found them now as they made their way to the building. By the entrance, Éothain beheld his waiting captains, Áedwulf and Anlaf. The effort of the additional day on the road was clearly visible upon their drawn features, but even more, concern and uncertainty stood written in their eyes as the warriors greeted their commanders with a curt nod.

"Éothain… Captain Céorl… Is it true what we heard? Did they truly incarcerate the Marshal?"

"We will give you all the facts we are in possession, shortly, Anlaf," Éothain answered the older of the two warriors. "Let's go inside."

He turned around and found that they seemed indeed to be the last ones to enter the stables. The yard behind him was empty. Closing the door behind himself as the three other captains preceded him, Céorl's son found the building packed with their riders. They sat on boxes, sacks of oats, stall walls and on the ground, and wherever Éothain looked, there was open concern on every face as they made their way through the aisle. The din of dozens of conversations stopped as the men awaited their report with baited breath and a feeling of foreboding. Someone had already shoved a massive wooden box into the middle of the corridor, and with a last glance into his father's face, Éothain climbed onto it. Involuntarily, his gaze first went up to the rafters from where they had cut down his rider only last night. A shudder raced down his spine at the memory.

Expectant eyes stared at him wherever he looked. He cleared his throat.

"My fellow brothers-in-arms… it seems that everyone has come, although those of you who arrived only two hours ago must be dead on their feet. I thank you, and I will try not to keep you from your well-deserved rest and food for too long. My father and I think it necessary to inform you about everything that happened while you were on the road, and we will gladly answer whatever questions you may have… as long as we can answer them. I'm afraid that the situation is still rather unclear and unprecedented."

It was Anlaf who spoke up first.

"We were intercepted by an errand rider from Westfold last night. He told us that the attack on the Fords of Isen came while we were in the north, and that it was repelled and our presence there was no longer needed." He inhaled deeply, and sudden dread appeared in his hawk-like eyes. "He also told us that Prince Théodred was slain by orcs. Is that true?"

Leaden silence threatened to suffocate all present as they stared at their captain, doubtlessly hoping for him to tell them that it was not so. Éothain sighed.

"Alas, it seems to be."

Dismayed murmur followed reaction to his answer, and he raised his hand to speak over the sudden din.

"I have to add, though, that we were not yet summoned to Meduseld for a debriefing, so we have not seen or heard any proof for this claim. All we received this past morning was a written message, and a rather short one at that. It basically told us of the Prince's demise and the Marshal's incarceration, and asked us to hold us in readiness. What for, I have no idea. We have also been instructed to remain in Edoras until further notice."

More murmuring rose, which Éothain understood. The men had been looking forward to returning home to Aldburg and seeing their loved ones. Áedwulf's wife was expecting their second child any day now, and his gaze was appropriately angered when he looked up to address his captain.

"For how long does the Worm intend to keep us here? Some of us have to be home!"

Éothain sighed.

"I'm afraid that I cannot tell you more yet. I hope that we will learn more tomorrow. At one point, Wormtongue needs to let us in on the decisions of the Royal Court. He needs to know where we stand."

"Alas, I fear that he knows only too well where we stand!" Anlaf furrowed his brow. "As we all supported the Marshal's decision to disobey both the King's and the Prince's orders, he might want to punished us, as well. He just didn't have the time to concern himself with us yet!"

"I do not think so," Céorl made himself be heard, his deep voice cutting through the din. "You were under orders from your superior. And Gríma cannot dispose of us all, not even just us captains. Removing us would mean effectively reducing the fighting power of our éoreds to the point of rendering them useless. The hierarchy of our forces was formed over many years. It cannot be replaced over night. No doubt would this play into his hands, but if he tried it, the Council would not follow him."

"And yet our Council decreed some pretty stupid things these past months," Anlaf snorted. "I certainly would not put it beyond them. And the King…" He shrugged and swallowed the scathing words that lay on his tongue. It was one thing to think them, and an entirely other thing to voice them. They all thought similar about their ruler's latest decisions anyway.

"Is it known what they intend to do with the Marshal?" someone further behind asked. It was Falk.

Éothain shook his head.

"No. For the time being, they incarcerated him. Although I fear that Wormtongue plans something rather drastic." He swallowed and looked around. "I received first-hand information that Éomer was not only apprehended for disobedience and treason, but also for assaulting the Worm." He stared into widening eyes.

"And… was he successful?" Áedwulf barely dared to hope. "Is the filth dead?"

"I assume we would already have heard of it if that were the case… and in all likelihood, the Marshal would not have been arrested. It is not as if the Royal Guard does not know of the snake beneath the roof of our hall. They just fear the consequences."

"True." Áedwulf snorted and scratched his chin. "Just wishful thinking, I suppose… What do you mean by 'something rather drastic'?"

"Éomer has been accused of treason and assault of a high-ranking member of the Royal Court. We all know the sentence for those crimes."

The two captains stared at each other. Slowly, the older man shook his head.

"Do you truly believe they will execute him? He is the King's nephew! He is also the last male descendent of Éorl's line! Surely, Théoden-King will not give such an order."

"I would hope so, too," Éothain confessed. "I would not bet on it, though. We all know that the orders the king has issued these past months were not really his'. And the Worm has been desperate to remove Éomer for years. He will do everything in his power to sway Théoden. Apparently, this whole plot was designed by him to rid himself of both Théodred and Éomer at the same time."

"If they decide to execute the Marshal…" Anlaf started to ask the question Éothain had been dreading to hear, and it seemed to suck the air from the stable. "What will we do?" He looked around. "Will we tolerate it that they kill our commander? Or will we do something?"

Éothain inhaled sharply.

"Like call out for rebellion, you mean, Captain?" He narrowed his eyes. "Because it would be an act of rebellion if we tried to free Éomer. If we failed, we would all be executed, every single one of us. Make no mistake about that."

"They would first have to apprehend us." Anlaf lifted his chin. "And the Royal Guard doesn't have the manpower to arrest an entire éored. They would need help… from the other éored." He turned to Céorl. "Your éored, Captain. If we decided to rescue our commander, would you aid us… or fight us?"

Céorl held his gaze evenly.

"I am not your enemy," he said. "I want what you want. But your suggestion holds great danger, because even if I would not hinder you, you can count on it that somebody will see things differently… and act. From what I heard, the tidings we received were from the Lord of Westfold himself. If he saw the Prince die, he is bound to come to a different conclusion. The same goes for Grimbold. He was Théodred's best friend. With the Eastmark behind Éomer and the Westmark behind Erkenbrand and Grimbold, can you fathom what catastrophe would ensue? We have barely enough men to fight orcs and Wild Men. If we also started killing each other over politics… it would be our end. We cannot afford it, under no circumstances."

For the longest time, it seemed that none of the present dared to breathe as they envisioned what their Captain had said. Their éoreds fighting each other… it was unthinkable. Unimaginable.

"Then what is it that you suggest, Captain? Is there nothing we can do without dooming the Mark to burn in a civil war?" Anlaf began to sound desperate. Éothain could not blame him.

"If we act," Céorl began, "we need to ensure that everyone is on the same side. There is no way around that."

"Which means someone needs to ride west and try to sway Erkenbrand. But what if that fails?"

"First of all, it means that we will have to assure ourselves of the Eastmark's loyalty," Céorl clarified. "We cannot simply take it as a given. Not in these dark times. I plan to ride to Aldburg myself to see how things are. You did not, by any chance, meet Elfhelm on the road? They should be on their way back from Westfold, as well."

Anlaf shook his head.

"We saw no sign of them. I imagine that they might take a bit longer to wait until their injured can be transported. That errand rider told us that it was a very bloody battle with great loss of life. However, we might lose too much time waiting for Marshal Elfhelm's and the Lord of Westfold's consent. What if the Worm decides to execute Éomer before we have it?"

"There must first be a trial. Our law calls for it. That will give us some additional time, at least one or two sennights." Céorl looked around and into sceptical faces. "And I imagine that they would want for the Lord of Westfold to have a say in it, so in all likelihood, Marshal Erkenbrand will come to Edoras, and we will find an opportunity to speak with him."

Brooding silence spread in the confined space of the stable, only broken by occasional snorts and whickering horses. When it seemed that no one else had any questions left, Éothain spoke up again.

"We will leave it at that for the time being. Hopefully, there will be new developments tomorrow, and we will concern ourselves with them then… Yet I fear that there is something else that needs your attention. Something of no lesser urgency, I'm afraid." His men looked at him warily. "The spy we assumed in our éored… he was finally revealed. It was Cernhelm."

For a moment, they stared at him in consternation… before anger replaced that emotion. Heated shouting erupted in the stables in result to Éothain's words.

"So that's why he is not here! I should have known! That man was always too quiet," Áedwulf sneered and spat in disgust. "Where is he? Did you kill him when you found out?"

Éothain met his Captain's gaze unflinchingly.

"He killed himself. He hung himself from the rafters in this very building."

"Well, good for him!" Áedwulf narrowed his eyes. "That spares him what I would have done had I gotten my hands on him!"

Shouts of approval answered him. Éothain lifted his hand, silencing the riders before he explained.

"Before you cheer and condemn the man, perhaps all of you should should first hear what actually happened. Because it raises questions… for example, how we can avoid ever finding ourselves in Cernhelm's shoes."

"I would never betray my brothers-in-arms!" Áedwulf growled indignantly. "I would rather bite off my tongue… or kill myself!"

"Apparently, that is what Cernhelm decided to do at last. He was desperate enough to hang himself, leaving his wife and his child behind. It is a rather tragic story, and we need to find a way to prevent that anything like this happens ever again. But hear for yourself…"

Éothain recounted the happenings of the past night, and while he talked, he could see the expression on the faces before him change from rage to thoughtfulness… and at last to dismay. Silence followed his words once he was done, and the riders stared at each other uncomfortably.

"Curse that filth Wormtongue," Anlaf growled between ground teeth, and his fingers clenched around the hilt of his sword in helpless frustration. "I wish we had known. We might have been able to help him. I never understood why he had his family here in Edoras, where they were much closer to the Worm's influence. He said it was because his wife's parents lived here, and they needed their help ever since her father had been wounded in an accident. They should all have moved to Aldburg together."

Éothain shrugged.

"I do not think it matters where anyone lives. The Worm has his spies everywhere. It is safe to assume that. And it is also safe to assume that Cernhelm was not the only one they threatened into betraying his éored's secrets." He noticed how his riders were looking at each other with increasing unease, and his tone grew even more urgent. "I implore you: tell us if you ever find yourself in a seemingly desperate situation! Trust us, we will keep it secret, and we will find a way to help you! You can come and talk to us any time, and if you think it is safer for you to knock on our door in the middle of the night, then this is all right, too! One grieving widow in result to the Worm's scheming is more than enough. We need to protect each other more than ever. Promise me you will tell us!"

The riders stared at him, clearly unwilling to imagine themselves in their dead comrade's situation.

"Do you promise?" Éothain stressed, and this time, a unanimous "Aye!" answered him. Satisfied for the time being, he nodded. "Good. Now, I do not want to keep you any longer. Take up your quarters and see that you get a full stomach and some rest, you have earned it. We will meet here again tomorrow at noon and see whether there are any new developments we need to take into consideration. Now go."


Night had fallen over Edoras once again, and as on the night before, Éowyn waited for the last light in the city to go out. It had been another taxing, frustrating day with intense discussions involving both captains of the Royal Guard, and it had left her thoroughly drained. Contrary to the night before, the daughter of Éomund felt that she could have instantly fallen asleep if she had allowed it… which was why she had chosen not to lie down this time. If she slept through, it meant that her brother would go hungry and thirsty.

So she sat in her favourite armchair and stared into the flames, huddled into a warm blanket and waiting for time to pass while she pondered what the day had brought. Shortly before the evening meal, Háma had knocked at her door and confessed that Wormtongue had denied his request to see Éomer, a crestfallen expression deeply engraved into his broad features. He had only confirmed what Éowyn had expected, and yet the news had left her deeply disappointed and even more concerned for her brother.

She had thanked the warrior and chosen to take the evening meal in the solitude of her own chambers, not feeling up to any company. Apparently, she had made a rather forlorn impression, as it had caused Maelwyn to speak up when she had set the heavily laden tray on the table in front of her. The young handmaiden had offered her help in whatever way she could, for a moment succeeding in painting a thankful, touched smile onto Éowyn's features. It had been a nice gesture, a compassionate gesture, something that was becoming increasingly rare within these halls. And yet a gesture it would remain, for what was there that a simple handmaiden could do in these evil times?

If the past days had had one positive aspect, it was that Wormtongue had apparently been too busy to play his usual evil game with her. Too busy… or perhaps, he was still hurting too much after Éomer's assault. She had seen the force her brother had used to smash his opponent against the pillar. Beneath his moth-eaten black garments, Gríma had to be black and blue from the impact. She thanked Béma for every single moment of their adversary's pain.

And still… Éomer had been in much worse condition than their enemy when she had last seen him. And it made her feel so helpless, for even though he had greatly appreciated the food she had brought him, her efforts had only been a drop in the bucket of what her brother really needed. Now her plan with Háma had failed, too, and she did not see what else there was that she could do to ease Éomer's situation. Perhaps, the time had come to plead for his life. Perhaps, if she caught him in the right moment and found the right words, Théoden would be merciful.

Éowyn gave an unladylike snort and grimaced. She did not even know the outcome of today's council meeting, that was how involved they kept her. And neither Éothain nor Céorl had come to see her today, which was a direct result of fiercer entry regulations. Háma had told her that, for as long as Éomer was kept in the dungeon, no one who had not been summoned would be allowed into Meduseld. It was frustrating enough to drive anyone up the wall.

Impatiently, she jumped to her feet. Another look out of the window revealed at last a sleeping Edoras to her. That was good, because otherwise, anxiety might well have caused her to start pulling her hair out. Quickly gathering her things, Éowyn pulled aside the tapestry and briefly listened into the darkness beyond before she descended the few steps into the tunnel. Somewhere in the back of her mind, the voice of reason cried out to her to be at least as cautious as on the night before. That, only because it had worked once, there was no guarantee that Gríma had not in the meantime recognised – and remedied – his lapse. That voice annoyed her, even though she realised that its concern was valid.

Only with the greatest effort, Éowyn managed to slow down. Time and again, she halted and listened, against her impulse to reach Éomer as quickly as possible. No doubt would he be cross with her for not having heeded his advice and leave, but he would also be thankful for her company… and the food she had for him.

While her mind returned to the previous night, her groping hand found the connecting tunnel. She turned into it… and hesitated suddenly. Something was different, even if she could not name it yet. It was no noise she had heard, nor a smell that had reach her nostrils. It was only the merest sense that something had changed, somewhere on the very edge of her awareness.

While she stood in the darkness and listened, a cold shudder raced down her spine. Icy tendrils sprouted from it and settled in her stomach.

'Someone is here…'

Éowyn narrowed her eyes in a doomed attempt to see more in the distant twilight at the tunnel's mouth. It was not until the image began to spin before her that she realised she had been holding her breath. Soundlessly, she filled her lungs with air… and advanced another step… only to hesitate again. Her heartbeat accelerated. The distinct notion that she was not alone in the tunnel grew even stronger.

'It cannot be! I left no trace, he cannot have known!'

And yet Gríma had always been a step or two ahead of everyone for most of the time. Was it not possible that he had simply realised his oversight when he had visited Éomer… and placed a guard at the tunnel's end?

'Of course it is, and it would be just like him!'

Was that breathing she was hearing through the thunder of her own heartbeat? Stealthy, subdued breaths by someone who was listening into the darkness just as intently as she was?

'It is only fear! It's causing me to hear these things!'

But why was there the insistent tingling of all her nerve endings which she had never felt before? Had not her own brother repeatedly stated that there was such a thing as a heightened state of awareness? The sharpened instincts of a warrior that picked up things others would have deemed impossible? While she was no warrior in the ordinary way, the game of cat and mouse she had been playing with their adversary surely justified the existence of such an increased sense of perception. And right now, her body was signalling her in every way it could that there was danger lurking before her.

'If I turn back now, Éomer will suffer…'

But would he not suffer even more if they caught and punished her? And he had begged her to leave Edoras only last night. He was not expecting her. In fact, he was hoping for her not to return.

'What shall I do?'

It felt as if she had been standing in the blackness for ages, and now fear threatened to root her to the spot permanently. It was either proceed… or leave. Now. With infinite caution, Éowyn crouched down to get a different angle. It was the last attempt to save the situation… and this time, she saw him. There was someone in the darkness before her, sitting with his back against the wall. Silent. Unmoving. Listening. Very likely alarmed by the same set of senses that had warned her.

Suddenly, her heartbeat sounded like thunder in her ears. Every little internal noise, every swallow, every shallow breath she drew had the potential to betray her. What if she got up and her joints cracked? Fear threatened to paralyse her.


From somewhere behind the man, a sudden bout of coughing disrupted the silence, and Éowyn jumped. For a dreadful moment, the tankard threatened to slip from her hands.

'No, no, no, no, no…'

"Shut your face, bastard! Or I'll shut it for you!' the guard growled, for a moment annoyed and distracted. It was all Éowyn needed to rise and retreat around the corner. On legs that felt like two wooden sticks, the daughter of Éomund slowly made it back to the safety of her chambers.

Only when the heavy tapestry had fallen back into place behind her, Éowyn allowed herself a deep, shaky breath. It turned into a sob. Violent trembling seized her as she sank into her armchair and set down the tankard on the floor. She buried her face in quivering hands as a black chasm of despair opened before her.

'I am sorry, Éomer! I am so sorry!'

A Red Sun Rises

Chapter 23: Heart to Heart

Éomer opened his eyes to the by now familiar flickering twilight. Despite the shirt Gríma had given him and the thin woollen blanket he had wrapped tightly around his body, he felt frozen, and an icy draft passed right over his face from a fissure in the rock. Unconsciously moving away as soon as he became aware of it, Éomer – out of the corner of his eye - suddenly noticed movement… and found himself face to face with a fat rat that had feasted on the breadcrumbs he had left on the tablet. He recoiled, and the rat fled with a frightened squeak and disappeared through the iron bars. Following its path with his eyes, Éomer wished he could do the same. His chances seemed slim, though.

Today… was the last day of his life.

The sudden thought hit him in the gut like a battering ram and knocked the air from his lungs. Panic started to rise from the depths of his subconscious, spread its dark wings to sweep him away in a black maelstrom, and only with supreme effort, Éomer succeeded in pushing it back to where it had come from. With a deep, soundless sigh, the son of Éomund turned on his back and stared at the ceiling. Was this indeed it? The point where his life ended? Twenty-four hours left to come to grips with what his life had meant and what he would leave behind?

Would they really execute him? Somehow, even after these last two days in the dungeon, he could not believe it. If there was a shred of the old Théoden left inside his uncle's body, wasn't it impossible that he would sentence his nephew to die? But then again, he had not even come to see him in his cell, had not even tried to speak with him. Why? Because he was too ill to navigate the stairs? Or because he did not care? Éomer feared that it was the latter. And it was not only the result of Gríma's poison, no. He had fallen out of his uncle's favour long ago. The realisation left a bitter taste in his mouth.

And where were Aragorn and his companions? Éomer's frown deepened. Unconsciously, he rubbed his arms. His hands felt like ice, no matter what he did. He blew air over his frozen fingers, and then stuck them beneath his armpits as his memory returned to the meeting on the plains. Had he misjudged, after all? Had his instincts, which had never lied to him before, failed him at the most critical time? Had he been too exhausted, too tired to see what kind of people those three travellers had been in truth? Had despair and fear to return to Edoras caused him to project all his hopes onto random strangers, who couldn't have been luckier than to receive unexpected help in their unknown – and potentially dangerous - quest in the form of an overwrought marshal who failed to do his duty? Did he actually deserve to be hanged?

Éomer heaved a sigh and massaged his hurting brow. No. It could not be. His instincts could not have been so grossly wrong. All his life he had depended on them – in battle, in the judgment of character… He was known among his riders for being almost eerily able to see right through people. And never before had the voice in his head been so strong. It had almost been as if Béma himself had urged him to aid those warriors. He refused to believe that exhaustion had let him into committing a mistake. If they killed him for his actions, it was them who were wrong, not he. Which didn't make his situation any better.

And still the fact remained that the three had not arrived in Edoras. Éomer was certain that his adversary would have gleefully told him if they had been apprehended. So what other explanations were there for their continued absence? Were they still looking for their friends at the northern border? Or had they had, after all, met with a gruesome end at the hands of an orc-horde, or a troupe of the Worm's thugs, even if that was the option the son of Éomund believed in least. Had the weather deteriorated to the point where travelling across the plains was rendered impossible? Éomer seemed to remember faintly that his scouts had hinted at the possibility of a blizzard shortly before they had entered Edoras, and the icy draft in his cell indeed seemed to hint at a storm outside.

In the end, it was irrelevant. They had not come. By trusting those strangers with his life, Éomer had risked everything… and lost. Tomorrow, he would pay the ultimate price for his gamble.

It was not that he was afraid to die. One could not rise through the ranks from recruit to marshal as fast as he had done if fear directed one's steps. Death was a possibility all members of the Armed Forces accepted readily. But it had been a different kind of death he had always had in mind for himself: the heroic end that ensured life for his loved ones and for the Mark. An ascent to the halls of his ancestors on the Pale Stallion's back, and a joyous welcome at their gates. The comforting knowledge that his memory would be revered and honoured.

To have it linked to treason and shame instead was a thought Éomer found utterly unacceptable. He could not even remember when, in his lifetime, a man of the Mark had ever been sentenced for treason. They had all fought together, for the same side, for as long as he could think back. He had given his blood for the Mark many times. How could they even begin to think him a traitor now?

"You did nothing wrong, Cousin."

It was Théodred's voice he heard in his head again, and it painted the ghost of a bitter smirk upon Éomer's face.

"Unfortunately, you seem to be the only one who thinks that way, Théodred," he replied with a derogatory snort. "And Éowyn, of course. The rest of them appear rather content with seeing me dangle from the gallows tomorrow."

"I doubt that your éored sees things like that…or any of the Armed Forces."

"Well, at least one of them betrayed me, or I would not sit in this hole. And if you ask Erkenbrand or any of the Westfold éoreds, I am afraid that you might also get a different answer."

"Yet I am the one you supposedly put into his grave, and I do not share the Court's view," Théodred commentated dryly.

This time, Éomer could not help but smile.

"But since you are only in my head, I fear that your opinion does not count, dearest cousin… unless you could somehow manage to sneak into your father's thoughts, as well, and change his mind. Can you?"

Silence answered him. Which was well, since Éomer already knew the answer. Théodred's voice was his own creation, his thoughts expressed in a different way. Probably prompted by loneliness and desperation.

'Or I am on the way to losing my mind…'

Which would be all right, too, if that meant that their people's betrayal stopped hurting him to his core. There was only one positive thought for him to cling to right now, and that was that Éowyn had not returned the past night. Which was good, because of course, the Worm had realised his oversight and stationed a guard at the tunnel's mouth. He had no way of knowing whether his sister had sensed the danger and turned back, or whether she had actually heeded his words and was by now well on the way to Aldburg, out of the Worm's direct reach. After the words with which they had parted, Éomer had not expected her to do that… but at least, he could hope now. If they truly hanged him, – 'Strangulated! He said 'strangulated'!' - he prayed that Éowyn would not be forced to witness it.

Of course, with what little Wormtongue had supplied him the afternoon or evening before – a small cup of lukewarm, watery soup and a crust of bread – Éowyn's non-appearance also meant that thirst and hunger had returned to the forefront of his many aches. It seemed that his adversary meant to keep him weak to thwart any chances of a miracle rescue by any means possible. If he could barely stand, fighting and running was out of the question, no matter what happened once they fetched him from his cell. The cunning filth…

Grimacing with reluctant respect, Éomer cast an eye on the leftovers of his precious water. Heeding Gríma's words, he had rationed it to the point where he had only allowed himself a swallow once he felt no longer able to do without. There was only enough left in the glass for one tiny sip now, and alone by looking at it, Éomer could barely restrain himself. He did not know when Gríma would be back, or what his disposition would be once he came. It was, after all, very possible that he had decided otherwise in the meantime, to make his prisoner's last day even more miserable by again withholding urgently needed sustenance from him.

With a suppressed groan, Éomer forced himself to sit up and take stock of his condition. The throbbing from the beating had somewhat subsided over night, although he still felt sore all over. Cautiously, he raised his arms into the air for a tentative stretch. His shoulder joints complained, but their protest seemed not as sharp as it had been. And his head… the lump was barely sensible anymore, even if there still seemed to be a tiny orc horde in his skull pounding at his grey matter with their fists. Which left the question of his sense of balance.

'Only one way to find out…'

Éomer scrambled to his feet, precautionarily holding on to the rock wall… and sure enough, the world lurched around him… until it finally stumbled into place. For a moment, he held on, his breath coming in hard, strained bursts. It would not do if he tottered to his death like this. If there was at least one thing left to him, it was making sure that he exited this realm with dignity.

With another deep breath, Éomer straightened… and removed his hold. One step at a time…


Bodily not far away from her brother, but seemingly in an altogether different realm, Éowyn still lay in her bed and listened to the howling storm. After all the energy she had put into her fight against the evil powers within their hall, last night's misadventure and the grim prospects of the coming days had left her feeling depleted and close to despair. Was there anything left she could still do to help Éomer? Which approach had she not tried yet?

Éothain and Céorl feared open rebellion – yet – and their reasoning had been sound. Éowyn understood that the two captains wanted to ensure that the people of the Mark would not be forced to initiate their own downfall, but they were losing so much time… As far as she understood, the council meeting that decided Éomer's fate had already taken place, although Éothain's father had assured her that there first had to be a trial. She feared that he was wrong with that assumption.

With the éoreds out of the picture… what could she do? Plead with Gríma? She snorted, disgusted by the thought… and already knowing the outcome. Perhaps, if she found the Worm in a particularly good mood, he would accept and spare Éomer's life. But of course, he would never agree to set him free, knowing full well that his life would be in danger for as long as his opponent lived. That meant her brother would be condemned to spending the rest of his days in his cell. To a man used to having the wide-open skies above his head and the endless plains at his disposal, it would be nothing short of torture. Add to that the horrible conditions in the dungeon, 'the rest of his days' would perhaps only be another few sennights, with Éomer additionally being at Gríma's disposal for punishment whenever she did something the Worm did not agree with. It was a horrible thought.

And at what price? Éowyn knew what their adversary would ask… and it was something she just could not give. Not even to save her brother's life, for she knew that Gríma would be eager to share his complete triumph with his prisoner as quickly as possible. The knowledge that his sister shared the filth's bed to keep him alive would utterly destroy Éomer. It was not an option. So… what else could she do? What reason was there to get up, get dressed and start the day with renewed purpose?

A noise from the adjourning room suddenly woke her from her dark contemplations. With a frown, the daughter of Éomund sat up and placed her feet upon the woollen rug. Despite the fire, it was unusually cold in her chamber, a tell-tale sign of how fiercely the elements were battering the exposed hall of kings. She did not want to imagine of how the temperatures had to be down in the dungeon…

Now voices talked in the other room, and Éowyn rose from the bed and slipped into her morning robe on the way to the door to check what the unusual commotion was. It turned out to be her handmaiden, busy with directing other servants of the Royal Household as they placed tablets with plates, mugs, cutlery and food upon her table by the window. Éowyn frowned.

"Good morning, Maelwyn," she greeted the young woman, who froze when she became aware of her mistresses' presence. With a nod, Éowyn pointed at the table. "What is this?"

With a quick curtsy, Maelwyn cast down her eyes.

"Good morning, my Lady. The King ordered us to arrange everything for his breakfast in your room. He intends to have it together with you." The handmaiden fell silent for a moment. "Would you like me to tell him that you are indisposed?"

Was that the impression she made? Subconsciously, Éowyn tightened the fabric of her robe around herself. What was the meaning of this? She could not remember when her uncle had last had his breakfast only with her. Or would he come, too? But she saw only two plates. Obviously, Théoden wanted to talk with her in private. About the sentence he had decreed for Éomer?

"No… No." She straightened in the doorframe and absent-mindedly brushed a strand of her golden tresses out of her face. "Please, do as you were told. Did the King say when he would honour me with his presence?"

"As soon as you are decent, my Lady. The food is being prepared right now, and I assume that everything could be ready in about half an hour. Should I tell Théoden-King this?"

Éowyn nodded.

"Please, do so, Maelwyn. And please have some warm water brought to me for my morning wash. Thank you." She closed the door behind herself and walked slowly over to the window, lost in thought. If they were truly alone during breakfast… it would be the perfect opportunity to try and change her uncle's mind. There would never be a better chance, so she had to make it count!


A good half an hour later, the knock Éowyn had expected reached her ears, and she stood up.


Her uncle looked considerably better than the past days when he stuck his head into her room, and her heartbeat accelerated. If Théoden was himself this morning, surely her chance to help her brother improved greatly!

"Good morning, dear," the old man said, and a little smile played around his lips and also lit up his eyes. "I hope you do not feel pressured by my spontaneous suggestion." He stepped further into her champers and closed the door behind himself.

"Good morning, Uncle." Éowyn chose to remain where she was, not knowing what to expect.

Without warning, the joy in Théoden's eyes turned into sadness as he came to a halt before her.

"You did not come to see me yesterday. Not at all. I cannot think back to when this was last the case. You must be very angry with me… and I think I know the reason why."

Éowyn swallowed and braced herself. So he had noticed… Inside her breast, conflicting emotions began to fight. Part of her wanted to step up to the man who had been like a father to her for many years and embrace him, wanted to celebrate the fact that for the first time in weeks, he seemed hale and alert… but the other, stronger part held her back. This man had the power to turn her life's joy to ashes, and perhaps, he had already done so.

She could tell that Théoden was hurt by her unusual reservation, but he made no move to pressure her. With his chin, he pointed at the laden table.

"Shall we break our fast together? What do you say, Éowyn?"

´"Aye, Uncle. Let us do that." Éowyn pulled back her chair and sat down again. It was unclear to her how she was supposed to swallow any food, tense as she was, and so the first thing she grasped was a mug with steaming tea, even more to hold on to than to actually drink from it. Before her, Théoden filled his plate with a piece of fruit bread and chunks of apples and pears, before he poured himself tea.

Silence filled the room. The heavy, oppressive silence that ensues between two parties who need to discuss matters of consequence and are afraid to begin. When his plate was half-emptied, the King of Rohan began at last, hesitantly.

"You look wretched, dear," he stated, and there was an expression of deep love and concern in his eyes when he looked at his niece. It almost broke Éowyn's heart. "You should eat something."

Éowyn inhaled. So the moment had come when the subject could no longer be avoided. She tensed and returned the glance, a bitter taste in her mouth.

"Alas, I fear, uncle, that my condition cannot be improved merely by eating." She paused, waiting for his reaction. Was that guilt she saw in those watery blue eyes? "There is only one way to make me feel better. You know which."

Théoden's shoulders sagged, and he took a deep breath before he put the piece of bread in his fingers back onto his plate.

"Éowyn… I wish you understood me. You heard your brother's words with your own ears. You were there when he confessed his rebellion, and when he attempted to kill my counsellor. Do you not think that Éomer broke my heart with everything he did? Do you not think that I would have been overjoyed not having to incarcerate him? He left me no choice."

"You did have a choice, Uncle," Éowyn objected, and her gaze became piercing. "You still do; it is not too late yet. You are putting your trust in the wrong man."

Théoden sighed, and the furrows on his brow deepened.

"Éowyn… we have been leading this conversation for many years. I understand that you do not like Gríma… and I know that Éomer hated him from the first time they met. Alas, that irrational hate lead him onto a path that had to end in tragedy."

"Uncle, I do not 'dislike' Gríma." Éowyn sat up. "I, too, hate him from the very bottom of my heart, perhaps even more than Éomer! And with reason! That man does not have the welfare of our people in mind. All see it but you-"

"And still they followed me in my ruling!" Théoden's tone hardened with annoyance. "There was no objection from the council members whatsoever! In fact, they wanted an even harder verdict for your brother! What does that tell you?"

Éowyn froze, the mug she held in front of her mouth to take a sip all but forgotten.

"The verdict has already been spoken?"

Théoden leant back in his chair, for a moment avoiding his niece's horrified stare.

"It is not official yet… but it will be by tomorrow, when I publicly proclaim it."

"But… there was no trial!"

"Éomer confessed, Éowyn. You heard him yourself. There were no questions left unanswered. He planned a revolution together with those three warriors he met on the plains. And-"

"A revolution in order to restore you as the true ruler of the Mark, Uncle!" Éowyn raised her voice, and she set back the mug onto the table with such force that it shattered. For a moment, Éomund's daughter stared transfixed at the spreading pool of dark, red tea, distraught by the ominous sight. Béma, why could he not understand? "A revolution to cast out the man who wants our downfall!"

Théoden shook his head.

"The both of you have been saying this – without proof - for all these years, and the people of the Mark are still alive! If Gríma were truly an agent of our enemies, wouldn't that make him dreadfully incompetent?" He gave a little laugh to indicate how ridiculous that idea was, but Éowyn was far from amused.

"He is not incompetent, Uncle! He is careful… and subtle… and cunning. He is a master schemer. Gríma wants to keep his head upon his shoulders in a realm full of enemies. He is doing what he needs to do to emerge victorious: he is turning us against each other! He sees to it that we destroy those among us who have seen through him… and I am certain that he laughs at us whenever he is in the safety of his chambers!"

"Do you know what happens in other realms to people who violate their rulers' orders, Éowyn?" Théoden narrowed his eyes. He was angered now. "Do you know what happens to them in Gondor?"

"I do not care what they do in Gondor!" Too anxious to sit, Éowyn slid back with her chair and jumped to her feet. "This is the Mark, and Éomer is your own kin! And he did what he did for the best of our people! Our people, Uncle… who do not understand your orders anymore!"

For the longest moment, they stared at each other, breathing heavily, the food before them all but forgotten.

"Who said so?" Théoden asked at length, aghast. Éowyn lifted her chin.

"Many. But I will not tell you their names, for I fear that you might punish them the same way as you plan to punish Éomer. Just know that your own son was among them."

Her words struck the King like a sword strike; she saw it clearly in his widening eyes. It pained her that the morning had turned so ugly, but only the cold, hard truth could help her brother now.

Théoden's mouth worked, but for a moment, no words would come to him.

"I… I… this cannot be true."

"Unfortunately, it is the truth, Uncle. Or why, do you think, did I not visit you yesterday, although you have only just recuperated from a serious illness? An illness brought about by your counsellor with the help of his potions, by the way!"

"That is not true!"

"The man you still trust although he poisons you. He has been doing so for years, right before everyone's eyes… and with his poison, he forces you to make decisions to the ruin of the Mark… like the one to kill its protectors…" Éowyn swallowed. "No, I could not bear to see you yesterday, Uncle."

Béma, how he paled in result to her words! His clearly visible torment almost broke her heart, but this was the only chance left to her. She could not afford to be merciful.

"How can you still trust Gríma, Uncle? Why do you not see what he is really doing?"

Théoden took a deep breath. He looked almost fearful now.

"Because that would mean… that I failed you… that I failed our people. It would mean… that I made a mistake too great and grave to ever be forgiven. It cannot be true, Éowyn! I love you, and I want to believe you, but you are asking for too much. I am always feeling better after Gríma's draughts. They take the pain away and lend me strength. You are wrong about him." He saw her expression harden. "Do you… do you hate me now?" It was a mere whisper.

Éowyn paused. What was it that she felt? It was a question that was not easy to answer. She took a deep breath…

"No… No, Uncle. I do not hate you. Not yet, at least. I am disappointed… and dismayed… and sad. I am furious that you would believe that horrible man rather than your own kin. It is not hatred, yet. But if you proceed with your plan and order Éomer's execution… it will be. I will no longer be able to tolerate your presence. And I hope you remember what I swore that day in your chambers."

"I do." Théoden looked stunned. "But Éowyn—"

"That is good!" she interrupted him. "Because I will follow through with it, no matter in what golden cage you might put me to prevent it! I will find a way!"

Breathlessly, they stared at each other over the table, unable to believe the harsh words they had exchanged. Finally, Théoden slowly shook his head as he stood up. Their argument had exhausted him way beyond his limit. He felt not up to more of it.

"Éowyn…I cannot tell you the verdict yet. But it will not be a death sentence. That I can promise you… And now you must forgive me, I need to lie down. I did not expect to get into a fight when I came to see you."

She regarded him warily as he approached the door.

"What then? What is your verdict? A life in the dungeon for your nephew? Or will you have Éomer whipped and the skin flayed from his back for doing his duty?"

Théoden paused, his hand on the door handle. Éowyn's bitter tone made him turn.

"Éowyn, I cannot tell you. You will have to wait until tomorrow… but I will take your words into consideration. You certainly gave me a lot to think about."

Éowyn pressed her lips together. How she would have loved to allow herself the comfort of hope! But she could not believe in it anymore. Not really.

"Please, Uncle… don't do something that will make me hate you…"


Author's Notes:

And just like that, this is the last chapter of RED SUN. From here on, what happens will be covered in UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK: THE BANISMENT OF ÉOMER - The Rewrite, which I am going to post in a little while. It is a take of my original story that shines a bit more light on the so-called "minor characters", as I had grown quite fond of them when I wrote this prequel...  Have a nice weekend!

Chapter 24: Setting the Board

The storm reached its climax shortly after noon. It blew the snowflakes through the city's alley and up the hill, and great drifts began to pile up against doors and in corners from where the tiny crystals could not escape. Life in Edoras had come to a halt, and so it was with some mystification when a loud knock at the door reached Éothain's ears. Exchanging a bewildered – and worried – glance with his father who stuck his head out of the kitchen to check, the son of Céorl walked over and opened.

Together with a whirl of snowflakes, the wind blew Gunthard, one of the royal errand runners, into the hallway. The young man looked thoroughly frozen as he removed his hood with a shower of snow.

"Greetings, Éothain." He shook his head. "This is really no weather to leave the comfort of one's fireplace." He cracked a sour grin.

"No, it isn't," Éothain agreed, warily. "So what are you doing here, Gunthard?" He saw something in the man's hand, an envelope with the royal seal. The summons they had been waiting for?

"I was asked to deliver this to your father," Gunthard answered, and looked at Céorl, who was slowly approaching through the corridor to investigate on the disturbance. He held out the envelope. "Sir, I have a message from Meduseld for you."

With a dark glance, the older warrior accepted it.

"Do you need an answer to this right away?" he asked, the grey eyes never leaving the errand runner's face. The younger man nodded.

"Aye, Captain. I was bidden to return with your answer."

With an inviting gesture, Céorl turned to the side.

"Then come in, Gunthard. Sit down in front of the fire while I read this. Would you like something to drink? Something hot?"

"Only if you have something ready. Please, don't trouble yourself on my account."

"I just made tea." Lady Glenwyn, Céorl's wife, looked out of the kitchen. "It is no trouble at all. I will bring you a cup."

"Thank you, my Lady." The messenger's face lit up in expectation. He followed his hosts into the living room, where Céorl pointed at a massive armchair before the fireplace.

"You can sit here while we read this. You wouldn't know what it is about?"

Gunthard shook his head.

"I don't. I am only the legs, I'm afraid."

"Huh." Sitting down on the bench by the long table, Céorl motioned for his son to join him. "Come, Éothain."

He broke the seal and withdrew the piece of parchment it held. The message was rather short…. and caused both men to lift their eyebrows in puzzlement. For a moment, father and son stared at each other in consternation… then their glances strayed over to the errand runner, who suddenly found himself in the focus of two rather irritated warriors. Céorl lifted the hand with the parchment.

"This says that Snowbourn found the tracks of a rather great horde of orcs almost upon their doorstep yesterday, and that they ask for immediate help." He inhaled… and furrowed his brow. "I'm wondering whether they truly sent out an éored for patrol in this weather, and how on earth they managed to find anything at all in this blizzard."

Gunthard had just thankfully accepted the cup from the captain's wife and wrapped his icy fingers around it. He shrugged apologetically.

"I'm afraid I cannot tell you more, Captain," he said. "I was given the sealed envelope and told to return with you reply."

"Hmm…" Céorl's eyes became narrow slits. "And now the King expects me to take my éored and investigate… in the middle of this storm?"

"I can ride, father," Éothain offered, although the prospects frightened him.

"No, son, you can't." Céorl shook his head. "This is my order. You were told to remain in the city until further notice, remember? I don't think the Worm wants you out there, beyond his means of control. Also, you have really just returned from the north. Your men and your horses need to rest."

"But this speaks of a great horde," Éothain pointed out, his finger on the matching paragraph. "Perhaps, you should take at least a few of my men with you. The ones who returned with me already had a bit of rest." The expression on his face changed suddenly. "Béma…"

"What?" Céorl looked up with worry. "What is it, Éothain?"

"There is something… Will you come with me, Father? Just for a moment." An apologetic glance found the messenger. "We will be right back, Gunthard. Please, make yourself at home."

Éothain all but stormed out of the living room and made for the kitchen with great strides, his father right behind him, a bewildered expression upon his face. His mother turned around in alarm when they reached the room.

"Éothain? Léofa, what is it?"

Éothain lifted a hand to indicate that their business did not concern her, and his voice dropped to a conspiratory whisper.

"Father, if they send you away now… you might not be here when the verdict is spoken!"

Céorl's eyes widened in sudden understanding.

"Morgoth's balls, you're right! This whole business-" he lifted his hand with the parchment, "—might just be the Worm's way of ensuring that we do not cross his plans with the marshal! He gets us out of the way to do… what?"

Éothain shook his head.

"I don't know. But what if there is no trial? What if Éomer's fate has already been decided and the sentence will be carried out once you are away? With only one éored – or even less men – a fight with the Royal Guard and Gríma's men would be an unsure thing."

There was doubt in his father's stare now.

"Sentence Éomer without a trial? Béma! I cannot see this happening, Éothain. The Council would insist upon it… at least I hope so. It is not a nameless rider who is in the focus of their attention; it is the King's nephew! The Third Marshal of the Mark! Surely Gríma cannot simply dispose of him just as he likes!"

Éothain inhaled.

"I would like to believe that, too… but can we be sure? No."

For the longest time, father and son stared at each other, close to desperation, then Glenwyn asked from behind: "Who is sending you away, léofa… and where to?"

"Snowbourn asks for help regarding orc tracks they found in their vicinity." Céorl turned his head and saw his wife blanch.

"In this storm?"

"Aye. In this storm."

Éothain looked thoughtful.

"You cannot refuse, Father… can you?"

Slowly, Céorl shook his head, stroking his beard.

"I do not think so. If I do and the summons turns out to be genuine… I will be the next one who finds himself in the dungeon." He exhaled forcefully. "Curse that filth! It is about time someone does something drastic to him! What a pity that Éomer could not kill him!"

For a moment, the three occupants of the kitchen regarded each other gloomily. It was Glenwyn who broke the silence.

"So you will ride out today?"

Céorl inhaled.

"Aye. I do not see any other way… although I am certainly not looking forward to it. Will you help me alarm the éored, Éothain?"

"Of course." Éothain nodded. "And my offer still stands, if you want take a few of my men with you, as well."

"No. Keep them here. I will take a gamble and say that this is only a means to get me out of the way for whatever the Worm's plans are. No one could find any tracks in a storm like this, and I doubt that even orcs would dare to cross the plains in a whiteout. You might also need those men for the protection of the city, or next, Gríma accuses you of neglecting your duties. We cannot risk that."

Céorl beheld the dread on his wife's mien, and with a heavy sigh, wrapped her into his arms.

"I promise to be careful, léofa," he whispered, and planted a kiss upon her brow. "I have often ridden in such weather. It is unpleasant, but nothing more… and I doubt that anything besides us will be moving outside. Beasts will stay in their dens, and orcs wherever they find shelter. We cannot even get lost, for we will only have to follow the river."

He released her from his hold and turned back to his son.

"Come, let's give Gunthard our answer."


Two hours later, Céorl's éored had assembled on the marketplace right behind the gates. None of the men looked forward to heading out, even more, as the sense of it was highly questionable. Their captain had even inquired again at the Golden Hall and had been admitted inside to share his concerns, but – just as he had suspected – his actions had done nothing to change the outcome. Very obviously, Gríma Wormtongue wanted him out of his way. So it was with a heavy heart that the valiant captain of the Edoras-based éored had called his riders together.

The snow crunched beneath his boots as Céorl stepped outside the stables, Steorra's reins in his hands. The big, experienced grey flickered his ears at the swirling flakes before him and gave an indignant snort, just before he rammed all four hooves into the ground. His owner sighed.

"Aye, I know, my friend. It is ridiculous. But we must head out nonetheless. Come." He pulled on the reins, and with a deep, disgruntled huff, his stallion followed him.

"Provided you do not find anything, how quickly do you think can you return, Father?" Éothain's eyes were narrow slits as he stared at the heavily overcast sky. It seemed that there was still a lot of snow to be dumped upon them before this storm was over.

"Oh, I am absolutely certain that we will not find anything. Even if there had been something, the storm will have blown away whatever tracks there were. So I think that we will – hopefully – make it to Snowbourn until nightfall, stay there over night and see whether their call for aid was genuine… and if it was, perhaps have a fleeting look around tomorrow morning and head back before noon. Provided nothing unexpected happens, we should return to Edoras tomorrow before darkness."

Éothain nodded, and he could not help casting a dark glance in the direction of the Golden Hall.

"Let's hope so. And let's hope that the Worm will not go on a rampage as soon as you are out of sight."

Having reached the great place where the rest of his éored was waiting, Céorl came to a halt. He put a heavy hand upon his son's shoulder.

"Whatever happens, Éothain, remember that the fate of the entire Mark is at stake. You cannot be too careful, even it is Éomer's life that is on the line. If you try something and fail, your neck will be the next one that finds itself in the hangman's noose… and the Mark will lose another one of its protectors. There are not too many of us left. Heed my words."

He clapped Éothain's shoulder and sat a foot into the stirrup, swinging into the saddle with long-practiced ease.

Éothain sighed and looked up. His heart was heavy.

"I will, Father. Please be careful out there. This might just be a means to remove you from Edoras, but it could just as well be an attempt to dispose of you and your men, permanently."

Céorl snorted and briefly brushed the hilt of his sword with a gauntleted hand.

"If it is, they will find us ready!"

He kicked his heels into the grey's sides and moved through the throng of riders towards the opened gate.

Éothain stood and watched until the last of them had disappeared in the swirling white. The city was under his protection now for the first time. For a moment, the sheer weight of responsibility bore down upon him, threatening to freeze him where he stood. His gaze strayed from the slowly closing gate up to the Hall of Kings, where his friend and commander sat in a cell… waiting for his death? Would the Worm's plans be revealed to them tomorrow? And if they were… what would he do?

With a sigh from the very bottom of his soul, Éothain turned around and walked back to the house of his parents. It seemed that another long, sleepless night lay before him…


The éored's departure had also been watched by other eyes; pale, malevolent eyes. They stayed on the snaking line of riders until the snowstorm swallowed them. Only then did Gríma son of Galmod close his window, although the room temperature had greatly suffered during his lengthy observations.

With an expression of satisfaction upon his features, he shuffled over to the fireplace to feed another two logs to the flames. One problem solved. He supposed the orcs he had ordered to swarm out around Snowbourn a few days ago had not been too happy when his messenger had instructed them, but they all needed to do their part for victory now. Sacrifices needed to be made. The Gods knew he himself had made plenty over the past years.

His back still hurt as he bent down to grasp the wood from the stack, and he cursed soundlessly. It would take a while for the bruises to heal. His back was black and blue where the Third Marshal had hammered him against the pillar, and his throat was likewise still swollen and sore. Only with the help of his potions did he manage to get through the day without having the Royal Household notice how badly he truly hurt. He could not afford to appear vulnerable and weak, not when victory was almost within grasp. Pain was temporary; glory was eternal. Wasn't that something the Armed Forces said? It was certainly true here.

He cast the logs into the fire and, for a moment, watched as the flames licked at the new food, before they jumped at it hungrily. He was almost done with his preparations now, which meant that perhaps, he would be able to enjoy a restful night for a change. Felrod and his men had been instructed, and their horses would be brought to the hideout outside the city wall after nightfall. All had been arranged. No one would see them leave. Once their prey had been cast out weaponless and vulnerable tomorrow, finishing Éomer son of Éomund off ought to be little more than child's play for six strong and heavily armed Dunlending warriors. At least he hoped so. Yet if for some reason, this plan went wrong, he had other possibilities at hand; all involved waiting eagerly for his command. No, in one way or another, the Third Marshal would die. The only thing that was regrettable about this new approach was that he would not be there to see it.

Now, all that was left for him to do was ensure that Théoden-King did indeed utter the sentence they had agreed upon. His niece had been busy like a bee these past days, and while Éowyn probably thought that it had escaped his attention, Gríma had been well aware of her increased activity. She had had lengthy conversations with both captains of the Royal Guard, and probably even prompted Háma to request a visitation of the prisoner. Gamling had been seen to enter her chambers, too. And then, today, rather to his suspicion, Gríma had been informed that Théoden-King himself had visited his niece for the morning meal. He had appeared thoroughly shaken when he had left her chambers, and there was no question what his discussion with Éomund's daughter must have been about.

This was an alarming development, especially since the King had seemed rather hale these past two days. Gríma had not been too happy with the quality of the last batch of the weed he had received from Saruman; it had been old and dry, and apparently, not too potent. Far-sighted as he was, he had managed to organise another, much better delivery through his own channels at the very same day, which had arrived only a short while later. The clear, odourless distillate he had obtained from it had looked far more promising than the slightly murky liquid the wizard's batch had produced, and the waiting time for it to reach its full potency was over today, too.

It was time for Théoden-King to receive another strong dose of his favourite potion. After that, a few chosen words whispered into the sleeping King's ears would do all he could ask for. Involuntarily, Gríma's hand crept into his pocket and closed around the small phial as he approached the door. He looked forward to this last task of the day, the words he meant to mutter into Théoden's ear already in his mind. Victory was close…

Home     Search     Chapter List