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A RED SUN RISES
Author's Notes: So... here it is at last, one of the chapters I looked most forward to writing once this particular plot bunny had bitten me. I'm not sure what this says about me, but after a couple of days of contemplation how this hearing would go, it went very smoothly and quickly. I hope you will enjoy it, as well, even if it doesn't bring good news for the man we all love to read about...
Chapter 15: In the Lion's Den
When the doors were opened, Éowyn's heartbeat began to accelerate. She was standing right behind the throne, a little to the side, which was helpful as Wormtongue would not be able to see the expression on her face during the proceedings while he concerned himself with her brother. Her slender fingers were clenched around the throne's upper rim so tightly that her knuckles were white, giving her disposition away despite her desperate efforts to keep her emotions guarded. She could not help it. This was easily the worst situation she had ever found herself in, perhaps even worse than the death of their parents: Théoden so ill that he knew no longer what was happening, her cousin killed and her brother about to be sentenced to death for his doomed efforts of protecting their people... and with him, her last protector in these halls would be gone.
Desperately trying to contain her hatred for the man, Éowyn cast a brief glance at Gríma. Their adversary had taken up position on Théoden's right side, but in contrast to the usual display where he sat on the chair beside the king, he now stood on the highest of the three steps that lead up the dais, in an effort to look as imposing as possible. From the expectant posture of his body, Éowyn concluded that their adversary was, in fact, looking forward to the confrontation.
Of course – at long last, after all these years, he seemed to have everything he needed in his hands to dispose of his worst enemy. And still Éowyn hoped that her brother's report would smash the confident expression out of Gríma's face like a rock; that it would turn into a frowning grimace for everyone to witness.
As she watched Éomer approach through the corridor between the two lines of council members and royal guards, her heart went out to him. Although Éomer held himself proud and erect, his gaze confidently meeting those of the men around him neither in challenge nor in excuse as he passed them, and although his strides were firm and confident, she could sense his bone-deep exhaustion. And if she could sense it, then the Worm would smell it, as well. In that way, Gríma was like an experienced scavenger; a beast that finds the one animal in a herd that is sick and too weak to repel it. How he disgusted her!
Her brother looked gaunt, there were bruises on his face and dark circles beneath his eyes, and it was clear to Éowyn that only his iron will and determination still kept him on his feet. She prayed that the others wouldn't misread his proud bearing as challenge, although they had to know him well enough to know better. But then again, why were they here, if not to condemn him?
'I am here for you, brother' she thought, hoping that somehow, Éomer would sense what she wanted him to know. 'I am here, and I will help you any way that I can!'
With a deep breath, Éowyn straightened behind the throne. No weakness could be shown to the enemy, and if, by her mere presence, she could transfer some of her energy to Éomer, she would try to. She laid it all into her gaze as she meet her brother's eyes.
His steps reverberated heavily in the leaden silence. It fit the gloomy atmosphere of the flickering torchlight, and, despite his determination to stay strong, Éomer could not shake a feeling of foreboding as he walked through the narrow corridor between the people he had known for most of his life. Their silence was stifling, and even though he made it a point of looking each and every one of them in the eye as he passed them, not in challenge but in confirmation that he was still the man they knew, that nothing had changed and that most certainly, he did not have a secret agenda as the Worm had no doubt tried to convince them, their responses worried him.
Their eyes were cold, questioning. Suspicious. There was none of the familiarity he was accustomed to, no sense of a 'benefit of a doubt in an unclear situation' for a man they had known for many years, and it set off an army of ants in Éomer's stomach. The last man he passed on his way to the dais was Gamling, and even his mien was strangely guarded as they regarded each other for a moment. Creasing his brow in a silent question – 'It is I. You have known me all my life. How can you doubt me now?' – Éomer realised that this situation pained the old warrior no less than him, and his blood became ice water. 'Something happened, and the Worm turned them all against me. Béma…'
With a deep breath, Éomer turned his attention to the dais at last. Naturally, his eyes found his sister first, and her appearance only increased his worry. Éowyn looked even paler than usual, her eyes huge in her almost translucent face, and there were distinctive dark shadows beneath them telling of sleepless nights. Sleepless nights because of worrying for him while he was out there, or were there other reasons? The smallest encouraging smile seemed to play at the corners of her mouth now that she met his gaze, and yet it did not reach her eyes.
Sitting slumped on his throne, Théoden-King looked even worse than he had when they had left Edoras, and barely seemed to have the strength to remain upright. His skin looked pasty and colourless, and his gaze, Éomer found as he approached, was unfocussed. Was he even aware of what was happening? Or was he only a mindless puppet the Worm had somehow enabled to partake in these proceedings, because he needed him to confirm the judgement he had already passed in his mind?
'Focus! Focus! Focus!' he berated himself as he advanced the last steps and then kneeled before the throne, deliberately ignoring Gríma until he would have to concern himself with him.
"Sire, Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of the Mark, has come to give you his report," Háma's voice could be heard from the side, where the warrior had taken up position, and with a rustle of clothes, Wormtongue stepped before him.
"Rise, Éomer son of Éomund," he said in a loud, cold voice, and Éomer followed his order, for the first time looking his adversary straight in the face. "Tell us what you found in Westfold."
A bitter smirk tugged at the corners of Éomer's mouth. 'Aye, Worm, forcing me to admit it myself, aren't you? As if you didn't know…'
"We did not make for Westfold," he confessed evenly, his gaze never leaving Gríma's pale face. A silent battle of wills in addition to the one they fought with words. "As you are no doubt aware of."
"Indeed I am." Wormtongue folded his hands and allowed his gaze to briefly travel over the assembled crowd in the hall, before it returned to the warrior before him. "So just for protocol's sake, please do tell us where you took your éored instead."
Éomer turned to the King, but could not for the life of him determine whether his uncle was even hearing him, much less whether he understood what was being said.
"Sire, I understand that this might be difficult to understand, but despite your order to make for Westfold, we rode north to the Entwood. I regret very much having been forced to make that difficult choice, but the situation there was too dangerous not to concern ourselves with."
An audible gasp rose from the crowd, muffled muttering. Wormtongue narrowed his eyes.
"I see, Marshal. You seem to think that you are authorized to make these decisions even against your ruler's orders. Alas, I heard that this was, in fact, not the first time you chose to ignore them. Actually, my sources say that you are rather notorious among our forces for that."
Éomer turned around to face the men behind him. He had to make them understand.
"Alas, Councillor Gríma, it is a reality that the situation in the field often differs from the scouts' reports. There is often a delay in receiving their reports and our arrival at the location, and in the meantime, situations have sometimes changed to the point where an entirely different approach is necessary. Those of you who rode with the Armed Forces once may understand of what I am speaking." Were there affirmative nods among the council members or was he imagining them? It was too dark to determine in the flickering torchlight. Éomer's gaze found Gamling. "In fact, the Prince himself often changed a strategy that had been discussed priorly to adept to a changed situation he found upon arrival. It is simply a necessity in order to survive."
"But Prince Théodred is your commander, Marshal," Wormtongue said. "He is, in fact, the second-powerful man in the Mark after the King. He is authorized to make those adjustments, whereas you-"
Éomer turned on his heels and lifted his chin in defiance.
"I am the Third Marshal of Riddermark, Councellor. I am the third most powerful man in the Mark, right after my cousin. In the Eastmark, my ward, I am the highest commander, and I was officially appointed to this position by the council members, who – as I see – are all present here. I'm certain it is known, but for protocol's sake, let me repeat it: my position specifically calls for decision making and evaluation of each given situation. My main concern is to prevent disaster from the Mark and her people, which includes the eventual alteration of plans to meet the needs of changed situations. Which is what I did in this case, as well. It is what is expected of me in my position. I cannot believe that I should have to explain it."
"Oh, but this is a very different case, Marshal," Gríma sneered. "In this case, the Second Marshal – your commander – summoned you to strengthen his forces for an attack that was only a matter of time. And then your king specifically gave you the order to make for Westfold. He even repeated it when you questioned it before you left, and stressed its importance. You disobeyed both… and instead, took your riders to check out a report that was, at that moment, of far lesser priority."
Éomer squared his shoulders. So, the battle was on. He had to win it.
"Alas, the Second Marshal had no knowledge of that report. And once he hears my reasons, Théodred will understand, because it would have concerned him, as well. In fact, once I have given you my report, I am certain that all present in this hall will understand that my decision was justified and necessary." Again, Éomer addressed the listening men directly before he turned back. "Will you let me explain now what we found in the north, Councellor Gríma? Otherwise, I fear that these proceedings are entirely pointless."
With a slightly derogatory expression upon his face to indicate to the council members how trivial he deemed this information, Grima motioned him to go on.
"It will not change the fact that you disobeyed your commanders' orders, but for protocol's sake, please do. I do not want it said afterwards that the Third Marshal of Riddermark was not given a fair trial."
'A trial? Is this already a trial?'
Swallowing the sharp reply that lay on the tip of his tongue, Éomer recounted the happenings of their days of pursuit in a calm, but nonetheless intense tone. At first, he addressed Théoden.
"After leaving Edoras, we rode through the night to intercept those orcs my scout had warned us of. We came upon them shortly before nightfall on the following day and encircled them to wait for daylight. It was a great group, well over two hundred strong, made of Uruks of the White Hand and Mordor orcs. They had travelled with previously unknown speed and endurance, which seemed to point at the importance of their undertaking."
"Which was?" the Worm interrupted him with raised eyebrows, but Éomer paid him no heed.
"After nightfall, we were attacked by a second group that came out of the Entwood, again over fifty strong and wearing the White Hand upon their brows. They tried to merge with the other group, but we kept them separate and put an end to them shortly afterwards. At dawn, we attacked and killed all who had survived the night. We piled their carcasses and burned them, and we buried our dead, before—"
"So there were casualties amongst your riders?" Wormtongue dug in, and reluctantly, Éomer turned back to face him. "Did I hear that right?"
"Alas, there were. The orcs outnumbered us two to one. It is a rare thing to do battle with such a great group of enemies and emerge without losses. Every commander in the field will tell you as much."
"How many riders did you lose?"
Éomer cast down his eyes, for a moment seeing before his inner eye his riders arranged in the long hole the others had dug to bury them. He swallowed and lowered his voice.
"Fifteen riders, unfortunately. And twelve horses."
The Worm narrowed his eyes.
"I see. Fifteen men died needlessly, so that you could have your revenge on those orcs."
Somewhere in the back of his mind, his temper tested the chains he had put on on it, and made him clench his teeth. In order to stay in control, Éomer once again turned away from his inquisitor and towards the listening crowd. There were men among them who had served in the Armed Forces once, he knew it, and he needed to convince them now against Gríma's accusations.
"Can you even conceive what a group this great would do to an unsuspecting, unprotected settlement? Gentlemen?" He approached the waiting men and impaled them with his intense gaze. "There would have been nothing left of it. They would have razed each village they came upon utterly to the ground, even more since all settlements in the Westemnet and Westfold deployed their forces to the Fords. They were wide open and vulnerable to an attack. It would have been a massacre. My men understood this threat, and they died in service to the Mark and its people. They fulfilled the oath all members of the Armed Forces have taken."
"And yet there are no settlements anywhere near where you claim to have intercepted those orcs!" Wormtongue raised his voice. "Not for many leagues! No settlements, and no herds either, according to your own words."
Éomer whirled around.
"And you would have guaranteed that they stayed on this course?" he snapped, despite his resolution to stay calm. "You knew this… how?"
'Because your master told you, Worm! Because Saruman told you to keep me out of their path at all costs, because they had something that he wanted!'
It took all of Éomer's self-restraint not to shout his accusations into his adversary's face, but it seemed to him as if Gríma read them in his eyes anyway, because suddenly, his tone intensified.
"Is there anything you want to add, Marshal?" the Worm said in a dangerously low voice. "Please, do continue. We are all listening."
'He wants to lure you into his trap! Focus!'
Exhaling, Éomer counted to five before he resumed. Even then, his voice sounded strained, but he had the distinctive feeling that at last, he was getting through to the others.
"Like I said, there were no guarantees for those orcs to stay on their course through the northern territories. They could have easily travelled that way to avoid protection, and then turned south once they reached Westfold to destroy all settlements in their way and attack the Prince from behind. Théodred would have been caught between the hammer and the anvil, and no doubt would you have found a way then to lay our people's corpses on my doorstep! But now, they are destroyed, and half of my éored is already on the way to the fords. And tomorrow at first light, the rest of them are going to follow… minus the ones I'm leaving for the protection of the city."
He did not like the expression on Wormtongue's face in reply to his words. Not at all.
"Oh, don't bother," the Worm said with a throwaway gesture. Éomer's eyes became narrow slits.
"Don't bother riding west. It is no longer necessary."
His words stole Éomer's breath.
"Because the attack has already been repelled. The orc army was thrown back, thanks to your cousin. Not thanks to you."
Caught between anger and relief, Éomer did not know what to say. The attack had been repelled! That was good news, wasn't it? Only why then did he have the distinct feeling that he was missing something vital? A feeling that was strengthened when he cast a sidelong glance up to Éowyn. She did not look relieved. And while it could have been the bad light, Éomer was alarmed to suddenly detect a moist sparkle in his sister's eyes. What had happened?
"So, was there anything else about your ride north?" Wormtongue asked into the leaden silence. "Anything noteworthy? You killed all orcs, buried your riders and returned straight away? Is that it?"
"Aye." Éomer's attention was still with Éowyn, more worried than ever. Something was not right here. "What happened at the fords?" Was she crying? She was crying! Silently, but those were tears upon her face! When he faced Gríma again, he all but screamed: "What happened?"
The Worm remained calm as he lifted his chin, seemingly looking down on his adversary although he was a head shorter.
"What I told you: the orcs were defeated. Our riders threw them back over the Isen, at great cost of life… Which might not have been quite as great had their forces been stronger, but let's no longer talk about that. Marshal Erkenbrand wrote as much in his report. He was… surprised by your non-appearance, to put it mildly. But thankfully, your cousin stepped up… and the Lord of Westfold. And Grimbold. And Elfhelm. Everyone but you."
But Éomer neither saw nor heard him. He was looking at Éowyn again, and his heartbeat accelerated with abyssmal dread. There was only Éowyn now, and that expression of grief that was deeply engraved into her delicate features.
"Théodred?" he asked lowly, suddenly bereft of breath. Afraid to ask, but he had to know. It could not be. It could not be! But it was the truth, he understood even before his sister slowly shook her head, and the silent flow of her tears intensified, and realisation punched him in the chest like a war-hammer. "No…" He sank to his knees, all the strength, all the willpower that had kept him on his feet so far suddenly fleeing his body. "No!"
"Yes," his adversary replied mercilessly, his voice cold, and his pale eyes pinning the son of Éomund like an insect. The moment had come at last to seize victory. "Yes, Éomer, Third Marshal of Riddermark, it is time to face the grim reality: your disobedience brought your cousin to his grave. Théodred was hewn by the attackers in fulfilment of his duty. He died, because the reinforcements he had summoned did not arrive. He died, because his cousin, despite always claiming how close they were, thought that going orc-hunting in the north was more important than the protection of the fords… You betrayed the man you claimed to love like a brother."
Éomer did not even hear him. Wormtongue's voice was background noise beneath the sudden droning in his head, and before his inner eye, Théodred's face appeared as it had in his dream: eyes widened in dismay as his cousin thrust his sword through his chest. Blood spattering down his chin as his knees buckled and he collapsed.
'Oh Béma, I killed him! I killed Théodred! It wasn't only a dream!''
Somehow, he had already known then. The dream had not been born from worry; it had been born from knowledge. From a sudden void within him that had opened when his cousin died. It had become reality.
He did not even feel it when suddenly, his shoulders were grabbed, and he was pulled into a tight embrace.
Éowyn could no longer stand by and watch how the Worm tortured her brother. Before she was even aware of it herself, she had left her place behind the throne and kneeled down beside Éomer, wrapping her arms around him to somehow shield him from his tormentor's wrath. She did not think about it, nor about possible consequences. It was an impulse, too strong to resist. She was too fast for Wormtongue to stop her, and when he started to protest, she shut him out of her awareness. It was Éomer who mattered now, and only Éomer.
"I am here, brother," she whispered urgently, hoping to reach him in the pit of his bottomless despair. "I am with you. I know you did not want for this to happen. And Théodred would have understood your decision. He would have told you to ride north. I know this. It was not your fault!"
Her embrace was returned now with desperate intensity. Éomer almost crushed her, and yet she did not complain. He needed her now, more than ever.
"Lady Éowyn," Wormtongue's resentful voice at last reached her ears, and from his impatient tone, she concluded that he had already addressed her several times. "You are, of course, aware that the man in your arms is responsible for your cousin's death, aren't you? And still you are there with him on your knees, comforting him? What are we to think about that?"
Éowyn lifted her tear-streaked face, and despite the wetness on her checks, the expression in her blue eyes was hard as steel as she fixed them against their opponent.
"You did not listen, Counsellor," she replied, fighting to keep the trembling out of her voice. "My brother just explained why he made that choice, and his reasoning is sound. No matter what accusations you want to throw at my brother's feet, they don't stick!" She turned her head to address the council members, her gaze coming to rest on Gamling's face.
'You wanted to see Éomer's reaction to Théodred's death, Lord Gamling. What do you say now? Is this convincing for you? Or do you feel that his grief is feigned?'
"My Lords, honoured members of the Council… several of you rode with our Armed Forces once. What is your verdict? Standing before the choice between two evils, which one would you have made? You have known my brother for years; you have seen him together with the Prince countless times! How can you even begin to think that his death is what Éomer wanted? My brother is known for never lying, and now look at him and tell me that you think indeed that his grief is fake!"
"Éowyn," a weak voice behind her called, and she turned around, surprised to hear it. "You are wrong."Théoden was crying, as well, but the expression in his milky eyes was not forgiving as he regarded his nephew. "Get away from him. He does not deserve your pity."
For the longest moment, Éowyn could only stare at her uncle, her head empty.
"How can you believe this, Uncle?" she finally replied, not letting go of Éomer. "You have seen them together all your life. If you doubt Éomer now, clearly it must be the effect of…"
'…foul play', she had meant to say, but stopped herself at the last moment. How could she help Éomer best? By attacking the Worm publicly and repeating all the accusations her brother had fruitlessly voiced for many years? That way, she would leave their opponent no choice but to incarcerate her along with him, rendering her unable to help.
"The effect of what?" Wormtongue asked, and Béma forbid, there was something like horrible amusement written into his pale features. He was trying to bait her, but suddenly, his attention was taken from her. The massive halfbreed, who had silently stood at the end of the dais so far, hands on the hilt of his sword, suddenly appeared behind his master's shoulder to whisper conspiratorially into his ear. In reaction to his words, Wormtongue directed his gaze over to the shadows behind the column closest to his private chambers.
Following his gaze, Éowyn beheld a dark silhouette standing there. There was confused muttering in the crowd at the sudden interruption. Wormtongue lifted his hand.
"Forgive me, my lords. It seems that something came up that requires my immediate attention. Please excuse me for a moment, I will be right back." And with swift strides, he left the dais to make for the man in the shadows.
Narrowing her eyes in suspicion, Éowyn followed his path until darkness swallowed him, before she directed her attention back at the man on the throne. Yet Théoden seemed to have sunken back into the same apathy he had displayed for most for the hearing, and she was glad to concern herself with her brother again.
Éomer was still shaking with silent, only half-suppressed sobs, and his tears had drenched the thin cloth on her shoulder.
"I did not want for this to happen, Éowyn," he whispered into her ear with shaking voice, and the obvious pain in it broke her heart. "I swear in on my life! But what was I to do? How could I have chosen differently?"
"Hush, brother," she made, stroking his head. "You do not have to tell me that. I know. And they know, too, or I lost my ability to read people." She looked up and looked eyes with Gamling again, and what she saw there gave her hope. The Captain of the Royal Guard seemed shaken… and was that compassion she discovered in his eyes?
"I saw Théodred's death in a dream," Éomer confessed. "On the way back. It was the worst dream I ever had. I've had nightmares before, but this one, it…"
"It felt real?" she ended his sentence for him and felt him slightly nod against her shoulder. "I'm not surprised. The two of you were so close, it seems only logical that one would feel when something happened to the other."
"In my dream… I was the one who killed him." Éomer's throat tightened at the memory. "I stabbed him through the chest. I was in a battle, and someone came up from behind and grabbed my shoulder, and I… I did not pause to see who it was. I thought it was another orc, and … and I spun around and impaled him… and it was Théodred."
"Shhhh… It is not what happened, Éomer," Éowyn soothed. "You did not kill him, nor are you responsible for his death. We are at war, brother. People die in wars, especially the warriors fighting it. You did what was necessary, you had no choice. Théodred would have understood. And Uncle would understand, were he free of the Worm's poison."
From the corners of her eyes, Éowyn detected movement in the far shadows of the hall. Gríma was on his way back. She could not help tensing at the thought of what it might have been that had requested his immediate attention. Was there an orc army headed for Edoras? That it was a matter of import was beyond question, for his whole body language had changed as he ascended the stairs again… and when the stare of his pale eyes pinned her again, Éowyn knew that something horrible was about to happen.
She felt her brother move, and together, they rose to their feet, defiantly – and anxiously – returning the Worm's stare.
"I must ask you once again to step back now, my Lady," Wormtongue said in a tone that was not a polite question at all. It was an order, and something in her body wanted to instinctively follow the command. Only at the last moment, she held on to Éomer's hand and lifted her chin, daring her adversary to separate them by force. Behind Gríma, she suddenly beheld guards. Felrod's men, not the Royal Guard. Béma, what was going on? All of a sudden, she felt deathly afraid for her brother.
"I will not say it again!" Gríma raised his voice. "Step back, daughter of Éomund!"
Éomer, too, had noticed the change of atmosphere in the room, even caught up in his grief for his cousin. Wiping the tears away, he righted himself and squared his shoulders, determined to face whatever was coming his way with pride and dignity.
"Éomer, no…" Éowyn whispered as he lifted the hand she held and laid his left on top of it, squeezing her fingers in affirmation.
"It is good, Éowyn," he said, feeling a strange calm take hold over him. Because what could be worse than his cousin's death? Nothing. "Do as he says." Once more, he squeezed her fingers… and then he let go of her.
Reluctantly, Éowyn followed his example and stepped backwards until she felt the hard barrier of the throne behind her. Théoden-King still sat there, silently observing. Or was he? She could not be sure. He did not even react to her doubtful side-glance.
"Èomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of the Mark," Gríma began, and his formality did not bode well. "Only moments ago, your sister claimed that you were a man who never lied. Do you stand by that?"
"Why wouldn't I?" Éomer answered, and his voice sounded firm. No more trace of trembling to detect in it. Éowyn's heart went out to him. Béma, he looked so brave and lonely in the focus of his enemy, the man who had sworn to destroy him. Gravely wounded, yes, but determined to defend himself with everything he had all the way to the end.
"That is good." A nasty smirk played around the corners of the Worm's mouth, and victory flashed in his pale eyes. "Then pray tell, when were you planning to tell us of the three strangers you encountered on the plains?"
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