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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."
"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.
"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.
"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."
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