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A RED SUN RISES
Chapter 9: Razor's Edge
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!"
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!"
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.
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.
"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!"
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