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A RED SUN RISES
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.
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