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A RED SUN RISES
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.
"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?'
"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."
"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."
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.
"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…
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