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RED SUN RISES
Chapter 12: CHANCE ENCOUNTER
It was late when Éowyn made her way through the twilight of the Golden Hall over to her chambers. The flickering light of the hearth fire was barely enough to light her way, and whereas usually, Éomund's daughter found its warm glow comforting, the way the flames caused the shadows to hectically jump around the columns and tiles around her like an army of ghosts did nothing to calm her anxious mind.
The long and disconcerting council hours had appropriately ended what Éowyn was certain had been the worst day of her life safe the ones when their parents had died. The atmosphere had been fraught with tension when the members of the council had arrived; an emotion that had quickly been replaced with growing dismay when Lord Aethelmaer had read out Marshal Erkenbrand's letter to them. A cold, clammy feeling had settled in Éowyn's stomach at the vivid description of her cousin's violent death and the hard accusations directed at Éomer. There was no question that the Lord of Westfold regarded her brother's actions as treason, and from the looks of the men around her, their pale miens and bloodless lips, no other conclusion could be drawn than the one that these men of power shared the Marshal's view.
With unseeing eyes, Éowyn opened the heavy wooden door and slipped into her chambers, thankful for the privacy it offered as she locked the door behind herself. She could not bear to see visitors now, not even Gamling, whose face had told her all too clearly that at last, he too, had finally made up his mind concerning her brother in the light of these new revelations. And the Worm… she did not know what she would do to him if she were forced to endure his presence now. To see the triumphant sparkle in his colourless eyes and cruel anticipation at the thought of finally having his enemy where he had wanted him for all these long years. There was no question anymore: upon his return to Edoras, Éomer would be arrested, incarcerated and sentenced for treason, and there was nothing she could do about it.
With a deep, soundless sigh, Éowyn slid into the chair by the window, rested her elbows on the table and hid her face in her hands as desperation carried her away. Théodred… was dead. Éomer… would follow him soon, disgrace and shame forever linked to his name. Her uncle… was still fighting, but things looked bad, and although he had been reinstated by the council, the Worm still refused to help. If Théoden died, she would be left as the only surviving member of the Royal family, and what then? The Rohirrim had never been ruled by a queen. Would they accept her as their ruler? And what would her adversary make of such a situation? She shuddered to follow that thought.
A sudden hard knocking sound made her jump. Eyes widened and holding her breath, Éowyn stared at the door. There was only one who would dare to disturb her at this late hour and after this excruciatingly cruel day, and it was not Gamling. She remained silent. The knock was repeated, more urgently now.
"Lady Éowyn?... My Lady?" It was not Gríma. It was her handmaid. "My Lady, if you hear me, please open the door! The Mistress Yalanda sent me, it is about the king!"
With a soundless gasp, the daughter of Éomund jumped to her feet. So after everything this day had already thrown at her, it seemed that things were about to get even darker. She turned the key in the lock and opened, looking into a young, concerned face.
"What is it, Maelwyn? How is the King?"
The young woman swallowed.
"Mistress Yalanda is very concerned, my Lady. She bade me get you, lest…" Her voice quivered. "You know, lest…"
Once again, Éowyn felt the blood drain from her face as she straightened. If that was so… she was running out of options. Her pride was secondary. She could not hold on to it now. She would have to do this thing now, no matter how much she dreaded the thought. From somewhere deep within her, determination rose.
"I will see the King at once, Maelwyn. Please, in the meantime, find Lord Gamling and tell him to meet me in Théoden's chambers at once... and he is to bring Counsellor Gríma with him. It is important, and it is urgent. Go."
Only five minutes later, Éomund's daughter sat by her uncle's bedside, the stifling air and stench of sickness almost choking her, and her hand on Théoden's hot brow. In the throes of his fever dreams, the old man groaned and mumbled unintelligible gibberish, the look of his watery blue eyes dazed and confused whenever he opened them. He had not even recognized her when she had entered his room. Every now and then, his groans became a scream, even though he was by now to weak for any strength in his voice.
Her innards twisted into a tight knot, Éowyn met the healer's eyes.
"He is not going to last the night, is he, Yalanda?" she whispered, the words barely fitting through her throat. The old woman looked at her gravely.
"I dare not say," she confessed. "But he is getting weaker with every passing hour. I have done everything in my power to help him, and still…" She shook her head helplessly. "I am at my wit's end. No matter what I do, the fever is burning him alive."
"Théodred?... Théodred?" A painful gasp ended Théoden's outcry and pierced Éowyn's heart.
"Théodred is not here, Uncle," she soothed and stroked his sweaty brow. "But I am here, Éowyn. I am right here beside you." Her desperate gaze met the healer's, when suddenly, there was a sharp knock at the door. Éowyn straightened, dismayed and relieved at the same time. Dismayed at the prospect of having to face her adversary in this most desperate of situations, and yet relieved that the time had finally come to meet his challenge head-on. There was no more delaying the inevitable. "Enter!"
It was Gamling's face she saw first when the door opened, the old man's mien concerned and sad. After a quick, alarmed glance at his feeble king, his gaze met Éowyn's as he stepped into the room with stiff steps. There was no doubt that he knew what would be demanded of him.
"My Lady…" He inclined his head in greeting. Less courteous in his bearing, Gríma Wormtongue followed him inside, his fingers clutching the collar of his dark robe. The expression of his pale features was frozen, except for a curiously raised eyebrow that seemed to challenge her to speak, first. He neither greeted her, nor made any indication to speak at all.
With a soundless, deep breath, Éowyn rose to her feet, inwardly steeling herself for the dreaded confrontation. Her lake-blue eyes found the counsellor's, and she lifted her chin.
"The King is dying, Lord Gríma."
He stared at her without surprise.
"I do believe that I warned you what would happen if you forced me to withhold your uncle's medicine from him, Lady Éowyn." The pale irises wandered to the Captain of the Royal Guard. "I also seem to remember that the honourable Lord Gamling was present when I issued my warning. Is it not so, Captain?"
Caught between the hammer and the anvil, the older man avoided his challenger's icy stare. His gaze rested on his king's niece, instead. And still he needed to speak the accursed words.
"Aye, Lord Gríma. I was." Gamling lowered his head.
Wormtongue was satisfied… at least for the moment. He turned back to the young woman.
"You see now what harm you have done, my Lady. With all your unjust accusations, your spite… and your pride. You commanded Lord Gamling to forcibly remove me from the King's sickbed, and now your uncle is paying the price for it… You are scared that your mistake will put the King of the Mark in his grave, aren't you? That's why we are here."
Whereas only the past morning, Éowyn would have answered her tormentor's challenge with an equally scathing reply, she could now only stare at him… and swallow the words on her tongue. Her fingers clenched in the folds of her robe and she hated how they gave away her disposition, but there was just nothing she could do about it now. She was defeated.
"Could you still help him? Or is he beyond even your help now?" she asked, her tone neither challenging nor begging. She was prepared to give him what he asked, except… she would not beg.
The Worm cocked his head, not even moving a single facial muscle that would give away his inclination as he glanced at the sick man in the bed behind.
"I suppose I still could..."
"It is not too late?"
His cool demeanour threatened to inflame her rage anew, but with iron determination, Éowyn forced the impulse down. She drew in a deep breath.
"And all you need…"
"… is your formal apology, Lady Éowyn. Yes. Precisely."
She narrowed her eyes, but he did not flinch from the intensity of her stare.
"You were officially reinstated as Hand of the King only this past afternoon."
The faintest hint of a sarcastic smirk played around the corner of his mouth.
"By the Council. Yes. That was, however, only a secondary requirement for the continuation of my service." 'You will not get around apologising, Éowyn!' his expression said all too clearly.
Behind her, Théoden groaned when another fever cramp seized him. It was all Éowyn needed to hear to make up her mind. With another deep intake of air, the daughter of Éomund straightened. 'My pride is not important now.' Her voice sounded cool and sincere when she spoke. `Well then…
"Lord Gríma, I hereby apologise for my false accusations and for removing you from the King's care. My actions arose from the deep concern for my uncle's health in the wake of the blow he was dealt."
"They were born from extreme prejudice and the deep desire to find the perfect opportunity to rid yourself of my person."
It was not as if she could deny his words. Gods, he could not expect her to suddenly sing his praise, could he? So Éowyn nodded.
"You know me too well, Lord Gríma. And I hope you understand that the feelings I have for you cannot radically change in the course of one day. I will admit though that, in this case, I treated you wrongly and unjustly by believing you to be poisoning Théoden-King. For that, I apologise. I do not know whether this is enough for you, but it is all you will get from me."
She stared back at him, and the moments ticked by. Oppressive silence filled the room as she waited for Wormtongue's decision. If he decided that the humiliation of her apology was not sufficient… she would not give him more. She could not. It was impossible.
There was something going on behind her opponent's brow, she could almost see it although Gríma's expression had not changed. He was contemplating her offer. What would he decide? She was little more than a worm at the angler's hook right now. To which length would he go to humiliate her further? But was that what he truly wanted? Or was it not rather that he wanted for her to like him? For all these years that these games had been going on, Éowyn had never been able to shake the notion that there had been something else beneath Gríma's interactions with her, something different than spite. And yet, after having issued her brother's almost certain death penalty, how could he still hope to ever get on her good side?
For a moment, the Counsellor's pale face blurred before her eyes, and it was only then that Éowyn realised that she had been holding her breath. As she inhaled, she beheld something like the ghost of a smirk around the corners of the Worm's mouth. A smirk that did not reach his eyes. And he surprised her.
"For the good of the Mark and her king, I will accept your apology, my Lady." He granted her a very small nod. "I do believe that people can be taught, and so I do hope that you have learned from your mistake and will, from now on, acknowledge my contribution to our ruler's wellbeing." He turned his head to regard the clearly uncomfortable Captain of the Royal Guard at his left side.
"I also do realise you were under orders when you removed me this morning, Captain," he said. "In this case, the Lady Èowyn's apology will suffice to remedy the damage done. But be aware that I might not always be so lenient. The King's condition calls for fast action, and I will not risk his life by complicating this unpleasant business yet further. The good of the Mark is at stake. Now leave, and let me do my work."
The sun's pale light fell on the soft hills of the central Mark, obstructed only by a thin, high veil of cloud that took just the edge of the wintery glare from it. It illuminated an empty landscape, a territory that had been cleared from all its usual inhabitants like the herds of the famed horses of Rohan and their keepers. Silence lay like a death-blanket upon the deserted hills, and to a wanderer, it would have seemed oppressive, had it not suddenly been disturbed by the distant thunder of iron-shod hooves.
Winding through the landscape like a snake, a line of horsemen came into view, riding in pairs, and the pale light reflected on their armour and spears. After the night's rest, men's and horses' strength had at least been partially restored, and so the éored made good time for a change, all the more as the territory had at last begun to level out towards the plains.
Éomer was thankful for the daylight. Although the task of calming poor Garulf's riderless horse had at least for a while put his mind off the horrific images of his dream, they were still in his head, and despite their forced long rest, he had slept only little for fear to encounter them once again.
Time and again, the son of Éomund found his gaze straying to the west, where somewhere far beyond the horizon, his cousin was hopefully still holding the Westfold fords. They were travelling faster than the day before, but to him, their progress still felt excruciatingly slow, and there was this nagging voice in the back of his head whispering ceaselessly that they would come too late.
But what could he possibly do? Bypassing Edoras and not reporting what they had found on the fringes of the Entwood was not an option, however necessary it seemed to Éomer. He had already disobeyed Théoden-King in going north and taking his full éored to accomplish the task, there was no question that a delay in reporting would do little to rectify the situation. And he also needed to leave the promised men for the defence of the city. No, they had to head for the City of Kings, first.
Frowning at the prospects of how they would be welcomed in Edoras, the Third Marshal of Riddermark inhaled. He did not look forward to having to explain himself to the Worm. But if the Council did not understand what a threat a host of over twohundredandfifty Uruk-hai posed to the realm if permitted to go unchallenged, there was little to be done. Somehow, he would have to make them see.
"You do not look rested," Éothain spoke into his dark thoughts. "Is it still the dream… or the thought of what lies ahead?"
Reluctantly, Éomer met his friend's worried gaze.
"It's…" He shook his head. "It's both. I wish we were moving faster. I know it's too much to ask, but…" He shrugged. "We lost too much time with those bloody orcs."
Éothain nodded thoughtfully.
"Yes. But it needed to be done. If this group had been allowed to cross the Mark, they could have done terrible damage. I must admit that I had my doubts, as well, but I am glad now that we rode out. The Council must understand the threat they were posing to our unarmed settlements."
"I hope they will, Éothain," Éomer sighed. "I sure hope they will. But I cannot be certain. I don't know…" He didn't finish his sentence.
"I fail to see how they cannot."
Éothain's attempt at cheering him up lacked conviction, the son of Éomund found, but these days, he was thankful even for the effort. Béma knew there was little enough warmth between people in these days of constant suspicion. All kept to themselves as much as they could and did their best not to get involved in proceedings which could eventually hurt them. Not that he could blame them.
"The Worm will do his bloody best to ensure that they see things his way. I promise you that he will hit us with every infamy he can possibly conceive. We must be ready for all the accusations he will throw at us… and under no circumstances can we afford to lose our head."
"He knows your weak spots, though, and he will hit them hard."
"Aye, he will…" Éomer narrowed his eyes, unwilling to continue the discussion with his captain and friend. And Éothain understood and left it at that. Directing their attention at the empty landscape before them offered nothing to distract them from their gloomy thoughts. Except for the endless rolling hills, there was nothing to see. One could almost believe that they were the last people alive in this empty land…
"Riders of Rohan!" a voice suddenly called out, barely audible over the din of their moving horses. "What news from the Mark?"
Éomer reacted at once, his warrior's reflexes taking over in the light of an uncertain situation. With skill and efficiency, he checked Firefoot and signalled for their éored to turn around, not understanding where that voice had come from when the land they were riding through had seemed completely deserted only moments ago. It was not as if there was any cover to be had amongst these treeless, grassy hills, either… And still, as he turned his mount's head around, there were suddenly three silhouettes standing near the foot of the hill they had just passed.
'Where have they come from?' he wondered, suddenly tense, and his fingers tightened around his spear. 'And why did none of us see them?' He swallowed. If they had failed to notice these now very obvious strangers, how many others could there have been? Was it fatigue that had led to their oversight… or was something different at play here… some devious trickery?
As they approached the three shapes, Éomer shielded his eyes from the sun to assess just what they were dealing with. These were no orcs, that much seemed already safe to say. They looked human, only that one of them was significantly shorter than the other two, and of much broader built. Was that a dwarf? He had never seen a dwarf in his life. There were no dwarfs in the Riddermark, but from everything Éomer had heard about them, it seemed to him that he was looking at one now.
And there was something peculiar about the one to his left, as well… something that made Éomer's skin prickle and rendered this whole situation even more unreal. Something that told him that, while the tall, slender being in the grey cloak looked human enough, it was not a human being at all. 'Could it be an elf? – An elf and a dwarf travelling together? That must be unheard of! And what are they doing here?'
Frowning, he directed Firefoot closer, and his warily narrowed eyes finally found the third stranger. Here, at last, he was certain that he was indeed looking at a man, and yet, 'ordinary' seemed to be the farthest word he would have used to describe him as he approached cautiously. The man had a strange aura, an air of nobility and wisdom that made it impossible to guess his age… and he didn't seem to be afraid. Behind Éomer, his éored fell into their common custom of encircling the strangers, a thicket of spears and more than a few arrows pointed at the unmoving travellers, ready to kill at the faintest sign of a threat. Only waiting for their Marshal's command.
Staring into the third stranger's grey eyes, Éomer pushed his destrier forwards into their midst, shoulders instinctively squared. His intense gaze was returned unflinchingly, but there were no weapons in their captives' hands. He was not sure what they had found here. Not at all. The three before him looked weather-beaten and weary, as if they had travelled a great distance. And yet they had no horses and seemingly carried no provisions, which was strange. They were armed with swords and axes though, clad in leather and those strange, grey cloaks, and, in the dwarf's case – in armour, which screamed to Éomund's son that he was looking at battle-hardened warriors here. Which left one question. He cleared his throat, and his voice sounded stern when he addressed the tall, dark-haired stranger in front of him: "What business does an elf, a man and a dwarf have in the Riddermark? Speak quickly!"
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