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A RED SUN RISES
Chapter 14: A Different Sort of Homecoming
It was already growing dark before Éomer's part of the éored arrived in Edoras. Trying to find the right balance between haste and the need to keep their senses together and their horses on their legs, they had been forced to make another, however short break along the way, but now, the City of Kings rose from the grass before them, illuminated by many watch fires along its mighty walls.
To Éomer, it looked forbidding. It was not a feeling he was accustomed to when it came to returning, but nonetheless, what had once been his home for the years of his youth until he had joined the Armed Forces, now appeared like a threatening fastness that had been closed against him and dared him to enter.
To his right, Éothain seemed to share his misgivings as he stared glumly into the semi-darkness beyond his horse's ears. The riders behind them were likewise silent, but of course, they were all also on their last legs. Beast and men had reached their limit, and yet the true challenge still lay before them. How well could they lie?
With a soundless sigh, Éomer urged Firefoot towards the gate, just as the alarm reached his ears. A moment later, the massive doors were opened from within.
"I will accompany you to Meduseld," Éothain said lowly as he directed Scatha alongside his friend's mighty grey stallion. "You should not go up there alone."
Éomer doubted that his friend would be allowed in, but he remained silent. Meanwhile they were close enough to make out the guards' faces on the wall, and he did not like what he read in them. Aye, the light was bad, but it did not look to him as if those men were happy – or at least relieved – to see them. They were looking down on their approaching éored with strangely guarded expressions that tied their marshal's stomach into even tighter knots.
"Something is wrong," Éothain mumbled beneath his breath, apparently having felt the strange mood, too. "Perhaps we should run…" This at last earned him Éomer's attention.
"We did nothing wrong, Éothain," he said with conviction. "It needed to be done. Now we only need to convince the King and the Royal Guard of it… against everything the Worm is going to throw at us."
"I do not like the way they're looking at us…"
"Who knows what they were told," Éomer replied. "Ignore them. We need to stay focussed."
They passed the gate to find an assembly of people waiting for them on the marketplace. There were no cheers, no shouts, and no cries of joy over their return. Instead, the people were staring at them in silence, and all of Éomer's instincts cried out at him to turn around and flee. With considerable effort, he strangled the life out of the impulse as the gate closed behind them, but there was something else now, too, that began to stir in the back of Éomer's mind; something more familiar than fear: a spark of rage against the injustice of what they were up against, a spark of defiance. Determination to emerge from this contest of wills as winner, and to rid their realm of the worst enemy it had ever faced. An enemy who divided them, who made them weak and powerless. An insult to the Mark and its people every second he held power over them.
It grew stronger and stronger, found its way into Éomer's body language and made him straighten in the saddle and square his shoulders, even against the massive exhaustion. It sped up his pulse and flooded his veins with adrenaline. It was battle readiness in the true sense of the word, and from the corners of his eyes, the son of Éomund could tell that his friend had noticed the change in his bearing, for there was suddenly the hint of a smile playing around Éothain's lips.
"You look… different all of a sudden."
Éomer returned the smile, deepening the one on Éothain's features.
"Just getting mentally ready to wipe the floor with our sorry excuse for a counsellor."
"Now, that would be a sight for sore eyes! Count me in to do some of the wiping."
The smile slowly vanishing from his face, Éomer turned his attention back towards the crowd. He could see no guards yet, no one to arrest them. But of course, the Worm knew that the effort could be spared. His prey would come to him out of its own, free will. Oh yes, he would come. But who was prey and who the predator still remained open for discussion for the time being!
Turning Firefoot around, Éomer faced his remaining riders. They would not follow their commanders to the higher levels of the city, as the stables for the éoreds were on the ground level. He found himself looking into gloomy and doubtful miens and hoped to convey and to transfer some of his newly discovered fighting spirit to them.
"The Mark thanks you for your service. I thank you for your service… and your loyalty. To those of you who will ride with us to Westfold tomorrow: see that you get as much rest tonight as you can. We will leave at first light."
Not waiting to see his éored disperse, Éomer urged Firefoot towards the ascending path. He did not have to apply much pressure. The grey stallion knew where they were headed and mobilized the last of his energy to make for the royal stables, no doubt looking forward to a manger full of hay and apples and oats, and a good rubdown.
Éomer wished that he could have looked forward to what awaited him at the end of the path, as well, but as it seemed, the best he could do at present was to hold on to the sudden flash of energy and steel himself for the coming confrontation. He could only hope to be able to keep his temper in check against the Worm's hideous accusations. Gríma did not count, he was not important for the task he had set himself. He had to convince the others. Under no circumstances could he afford to undermine the sincerity of his claims by rising to the Worm's bait.
Never before had the path to the stables seemed so short to Éomund's son, when he beheld the beautifully ornamented building before them. A bit to the right and even higher up, Meduseld loomed in the growing darkness, awaiting them. Forcing him into a battle he was much less accustomed to than the one with sword, spear and bow. A battle that was second nature to his adversary. A battle he needed to win nonetheless.
As they approached, Éomer beheld Solgard and his stablehands outside, already expecting them. Even this spoke a clear language: he was expected in the Golden Hall at once. As much as he would have liked to tend Firefoot himself for the great deeds the stallion had committed over the last days, Éomer knew that he would not be allowed to take the time.
"Huh," Éothain made, bewildered. "They're making quite the fuss. As if an hour more or less would change anything."
"The Worm's way of ensuring we know who is in control," Éomer sneered, and brought Firefoot to a hold. From his elevated position, he stared down on the stablemaster, who was just now approaching him with visible tenseness. "Solgard! I suppose we are being summoned to Meduseld this very instant? Or why is everyone here waiting for us?"
The man returned his gaze unhappily.
"I apologise, Marshal. I was only told to expect you before the stables and take Firefoot into my custody. I do not know more." He furrowed his brow as he looked at Éothain. "Nothing was said about your horse, though, Captain."
"As I will be accompanying the Third Marshal, I would appreciate it if you could see to Scatha, too, Sir. He earned it."
Not waiting for the stablemaster's reply, Éothain dismounted, shortly followed by Éomer, and handed his reins over. With a last clap on his stallion's muscular neck, he turned to follow his marshal towards the stairs, his nerve endings vibrating with tension. There seemed to be a metal band around his chest all of a sudden, an immense weight that constricted his breathing. Soon they would know what all this was about, and if Éothain knew one thing, it was that they wouldn't like it.
"Wait, Uncle, let me help you with this."
Éowyn dropped to her knees and laced up Théoden's boots. She did not like the thought that he would have to go out there, to the throne room, in a matter of such heavy consequence, when he had not even fully recovered yet. Far from it. He still looked horribly pale and pasty to her eyes, and more often than not he did not react to her questions, as if he was not even hearing her. He needed support when walking, and his hands were still shaking from weakness.
"There now." She leant back and looked up into his tired face. "You are all set, Uncle."
The ghost of a smile played around the old man's mouth for a moment, before it vanished as quickly as it had occurred.
"Thank you, Éowyn… Set for what?"
For a moment, she could only stare.
"Éomer is on the way up the hill to give you his report."
"His report…?" It was another absent-minded question.
"His report about his ride north?" Éowyn helped, silently asking herself how in Béma's name the king was supposed to sit in judgement over his nephew when he did not even remember the most essential things. "His hunt for the orcs that had crossed into the Mark?"
"But wasn't he supposed to ride west?" Théoden mumbled, and she had to close her eyes. "´Théodred… wasn't he supposed to help him? But… but Théodred is… he is…"
"He is dead, Sire," Gríma Wormtongue's merciless voice reached them from the opened door, and Éowyn felt her uncle's twitch in painful reaction. "Killed by the orc scum in the long foreseen attack. Killed by your nephew through negligence as documented by the Lord of Westfold."
He stepped into the room, ignoring Éowyn's hate filled stare as she regained her feet and took position behind Théoden's armchair. She noticed that he carried a cup in his hands.
"And now he comes back to let you know about his triumph in the north. About his worthless victory, when – with this act of rebellion – he put your son in his grave. No matter what happens, my Lord, you should never forget this fact. Èomer, son of Éomund, is responsible for your son's death."
Éowyn's fingers dug deeply into the chair's leather in barely contained rage. How good it would feel if it were the Worm's neck instead. How good it would feel to unleash all her pent-up anger and frustration against her opponent! But what could she do in the present situation, where the Lord of Westfold's letter had effectively made a traitor out of her brother? What could she do, other than renew her threat and hope that the ill old man would remember it when the time for judgement came?
"What is this?" she asked with a curt nod towards the cup.
"A strengthening draught." Gríma met her suspicious gaze openly. "I'm sure you agree that the King won't be able to hold the hearing in his current condition without help."
Éowyn narrowed her eyes.
'What else did you put in there, Worm?' she asked silently, only by looking, and she was sure that her opponent understood. 'What did you concoct to bend him to your will again?'
Aloud she said: "Then why not postpone the hearing? There is no immediate need for urgency anymore. The battle in the west is over for now. Let us wait until the King has recuperated."
A nasty smirk appeared on Wormtongue's pale features.
"And let your traitorous brother run around free for a few more days? Give him more time to further advance his rebellion? If you wish for that, Lady Éowyn, I fear that I will have to reconsider the way I regard you. Perhaps, you do play a part in your brother's actions, after all. Perhaps, you are not as innocent as you would want us to believe. It certainly brings back that incident to my mind, the one where the Captain of the Royal Guard intervened and hindered me in the performance of my duties. It makes me wonder whose side you're really on."
Infuriated to the point where she was almost unable to answer, it took Éowyn a few long, deep breaths, until she could reply in a wavering, but icy voice: "I am on the side of the Mark, dearest councillor. I'm on the side of our people. But I'm not too sure about the side you are on, except for your own."
Wormtongue narrowed his eyes.
"You claim to have loved your cousin, my Lady. And yet you seem quite intent on not having the one mainly responsible for his death punished." He lowered his gaze to stare at the king.
"Do you not find this most peculiar, as well, Sire? That your niece keeps protecting Éomer even though his guilt has been proven?"
"Nothing has been proven!" Éowyn shouted. "Éomer would never have disobeyed his orders had it not been absolutely necessary! He loved Théodred like a brother, and I could see that it tore him apart not being able to ride to his aid when he stood before us! You must either be blind not to have seen that, or you did not want to see it!" She took a deep breath and stepped to the front of the chair to look her uncle in the eye. "Uncle, I beg you! Listen to what Éomer has to say with an open mind. Do not precondemn your nephew on the basis of a piece of writing that might not even be genuine!"
"You're getting desperate now, my Lady, aren't you?" Wormtongue's tone indicated that he was anything but amused. "To doubt a document hand-drafted by Erkenbrand of Westfold…"
"No one did actually see him write it, so as far as I'm concerned, I'm well within my rights to doubt it! *You* could have written it, for all I know! I wouldn't put it beyond you to forge his handwriting!"
With a dry, unamused laugh, Wormtongue extended his hand with the cup to Théoden.
"My Lady, I would love to continue this most interesting discussion, trust me, but now is not the time. Your brother will be here shortly, and yet we still need to restore the king to a condition that will enable him to follow the proceedings." He pressed the cup into Théoden's shaking hand. "Please, drink this, Sire. It will lend you strength. Strength that you are going to need."
"What would I do without you, Gríma?" the old man uttered in a feeble voice, and a deprecating stare found his niece. "Stop your bickering, Éowyn. It is not helpful in this situation."
With Wormtongue's guidance, he lifted the cup and drank, missing Éowyn's bitter stare.
Ascending the stairs before him, Éomer stared in the direction of the entrance to the Golden Hall, and found – unsurprisingly - that the staff there had been strengthened. Instead of the usual three guards, he now counted six fully armoured men, among them the massive Half-Dunlending he had seen in the Worm's service before. Éomer creased his brow. This whole setup was so obviously a trap that he needed to ask himself again whether it was not indeed smarter to turn around and follow his first impulse. To jump into Firefoot's saddle and make for the gate. But what then? It would be an admission of his guilt, and an acknowledgement of his wrongdoing. It would, indeed, make him look like a traitor to the people. Nothing would be won that way. No, he needed to succeed in convincing Gamling and Háma, and the Royal Guard, and – hopefully – Théoden-King, as well, that his course of action had prevented disaster for the Mark. There was no other option.
As he reached the terrace, Éomer braced himself for the confrontation, knowing Éothain close behind him. With long, purposeful strides, he approached Háma, who stared at him with a wary expression upon his weathered features, and granted him a curt nod as he came to a halt.
"Westu hál, Háma", he said. "We have come to give the King our report."
The older man returned his nod. He seemed extraordinarily tense when his gaze found Éothain. Neither had it escaped Éomer's attention that the other guards kept their hands upon the hilts of their swords. Interesting.
"I'm afraid that I cannot allow you in, Captain," he said. "The report is to be given by the marshal alone."
"And you know why, Háma!" Éothain's eyes were narrow slits. "What does your conscience say about what you are about to allow? Are you content?" He stopped when he felt Éomer's hand upon his arm.
"Peace, Éothain," his friend said. "Háma, son of Harlond has his orders. We are not in a position to question them. Neither is he. I thank you for your loyalty, but I intend to follow those orders." He turned his back to the guards and stared into his friend's face, lowering his voice. "Go, Éothain. It is no use. You are the commander of our éored now, at least until I have swayed the minds of those waiting inside. Keep them safe, and keep Éowyn safe. That is the best you can do for now. Apart from asking Béma to lend me a helping hand."
He saw protest in Éothain's eyes, and fear. Fear for him. It touched him, but he could not allow the accompanying feeling to blur his focus.
"Go, Éothain. We will put an end to this, I promise. The tide is turning. Be ready when it does."
"I will." Éothain's voice was thick with emotion when he grasped his friend's hand in the warrior greeting. "But you will return to us later tonight. I know it. Thus I will only say 'until later'." He gave Èomer's hand a firm squeeze… and turned briskly on his heels. A moment later, he was gone, and for the first time, Éomer felt utterly and truly alone. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, the son of Éomund turned back to the Captain of the Royal Guard.
"So… How shall we proceed?"
Háma shook his head and pointed his chin in the direction of Éomer's hip.
"Before I can let you enter, you will need to give me your sword, Marshal," he said. "I cannot let you before the King armed."
Éomer's eyebrows shot up, and he almost laughed. At the same time he noticed how the other guards stepped closer.
"Why? Because you fear that I would attack my uncle? You are joking, Háma, aren't you?" The man's expression told him that he wasn't, and with a heavy sigh, Éomer unfastened his scabbard and handed it over. "There now. I only ask that you keep it safe. I will hold you personally responsible if anyone else touches it." A meaningful glance found the huge halfbreed. "Is there anything else you want? Should I strip off my armour, too?"
The Captain of Guard narrowed his eyes, not amused.
"Only a few moments ago you told your captain that it is not our position to question the orders we were given, Marshal. Those were wise words. Did you decide otherwise now, to make this difficult, after all?"
For a moment, Éomer fought with his wildly bucking temper – 'It is not *you* they're asking to step into their trap almost naked!' – 'You know this is wrong, and yet you do their bidding!' – until, with a deep breath, he suppressed the turmoil in his mind.
"I am here to give my report, Captain. As ordered..." he replied with sudden formality. Formality had been a useful instrument to rein in his temper in the past years, and Éomer decided that now was the time to resort to it again. 'Focus!' he scolded himself. 'Royal Guard or not, Háma is only a doorward. Don't waste your energy to bandy words with a heeler. Focus!'
"It is not my intention to make things more difficult than they have to be. But you've known me for most of my life, and that - after all those years - you would think me capable of attacking my own kin gives me pause." For a fleeting moment, he thought he saw a hint of shame in the older man's eyes. He did not know how to feel about this discovery. Encouraged, because there still seemed to be part of the old Háma, the Háma he knew, in the guard before him… or concerned, because the man's shame hinted at things to come. Things Háma son of Harlond was ashamed to be a part of.
"Unfortunately, what I think is of no concern, Lord Éomer." the guard surprised him, and, with a sinister side glance at the men around them, cleared his throat. "Very well, Marshal. Please, follow me insde." Turning around, Háma met Felrod's dark stare. "Open the door."
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