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A RED SUN RISES
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."
"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.
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."
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…"
"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."
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