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A RED SUN RISES
Ahem… I suppose, as far as this story goes, this is rock bottom. I apologize, but please bear with me. We are also starting to get into "Untold Tales" territory, soon, leaving canon (a warning for those of you who don't like their stories to be AU). I realize that I will have to make some adjustments to "Untold Tales" to make these two stories blend the way I want it; so I've got my work cut out for me for the coming, dark months. Do I dare to end this "Author's Note" with an "Enjoy"? I do… ;-)
Chapter 17: Rock Bottom
Éowyn rubbed her hands together, still feeling frozen to the core even though it was pleasantly warm in front of the big fireplace. Before her, Éothain and his father were engaged in an intense discussion, their words once again illustrating to her that the solution she had had in her mind before coming here wasn't one.
Béma, how she had hoped that Éothain and Céorl would take their riders and storm Meduseld, and free Éomer by force. And at first, Éothain had seemed to have been inclined to do exactly that when he heard of his friend's fate, but as the discussion with his father went on, she came to realise that the chance of this happening grew smaller and smaller… and even worse, she could understand the older captain's reservations as he elaborated on them.
"Believe me, Éothain, there is nothing I would like to do more than cleave the Worm's head off his scrawny body," the powerful warrior just said. "I don't think that I have to prove that to you. Perhaps, if we were really lucky, we would even succeed in freeing the marshal. But what then? I have been listening to the people's conversations these passed days, and I'm afraid that I have to tell you that many believe the accusations against Éomer. I wish it wasn't so, but it is. If we did what you suggest, it would make us rebels. And while there are certainly others bound to share our view of things, many will say otherwise. The Mark would burn in a civil war, Éothain, and that is what we must avoid at all costs. We are already hard-pressed these days to fight off our enemies on the western and eastern borders. The loss of life in those last battles has never been higher… Add to that Rohirrim killing Rohirrim over this matter, and we may as well all fall on our swords right now. It would be our undoing. And perhaps, that is exactly what the Worm wants!"
With a deep sigh, Céorl leant back in his chair and glanced at their guest in apology.
"I am immeasurably sorry, my Lady. I wished we could storm up that hill and do what you hoped for, but it could easily be the end for the Mark. There has to be a different way to help your brother."
Éowyn wiped a hand over her face to hide her disappointment. Béma, she was so tired…
"It is not as if I don't understand the situation, Captain," she began again, trying to focus against her increasing despair and exhaustion. "But what other way would that be? They will keep Éomer in the dungeon until they kill him… and if I know the Worm at all, I assume that he will avenge himself for all the frustration my brother has caused him over the years before he will have him executed."
She looked up, and her hard stare pierced the warrior for a seemingly endless moment before she turned her head and looked at Éothain. She could see that, in addition to just having been shocked with the tidings of Théodred's death, the dilemma was tearing the younger man apart, but she could not afford to be merciful right now. She was, in fact, about to become even crueller. It was necessary though.
"Do you believe that they will grant Éomer a quick, clean death?" She shook her head, desperately trying to keep back the flood of horrible images that threatened to overwhelm her in reaction to her words. "Do you believe that they will simply cut off his head, or snap his neck at the gallows, and be done with it? Because I don't."
Her eyes burned anew with unshed tears, but stubbornly, she fought them back. Crying would not solve anything here.
The two men before her had to evade her bitter stare for a moment.
"It is a horrible thought," Céorl at last admitted. "And I agree that I fear the same. But if I'm right, we have at least three more days to think of something to help your brother. First, there must be a trial, and a verdict must be spoken. Our law commands it. And no doubt will Éothain and I be summoned to the hall tomorrow. The Worm will want to speak with us. While we are there, we can see for ourselves how things are, and whether there might still be the chance to sway the Royal Guard to our side."
Furrows appeared on Éowyn's brow.
"That was what Éomer tried, and even he failed. And it would give the Worm the opportunity to dispose of you, as well, if he caught you."
"Aye, we would have to be very careful," Éothain sighed, clearly hating the thought of having to wait while his friend suffered. "We'll need to be subtle. But it is worth a try, I believe. At least we will see what the situation is, and we will be able to take it from there." He looked at his father. "Until then, I need to find out who among our riders betrayed Éomer. We sent the few men we were not entirely sure of along with the éored's other half to Westfold, but it seems that we did not catch the Worm's snitch with this measure. I will not feel safe doing anything until we have weeded out his spies."
"Indeed, that should be the first thing you do, Éothain. Everything we plan will be vain until you found them."
"My Lady, you are shivering. Here, have some tea." Lady Glenwyn, Éothain's mother, had silently approached from behind and placed a steaming cup right before her, gently touching Éowyn's shoulder before she slid into a seat by her husband's side.
With a thankful glance, Éowyn wrapped her frozen fingers around the earthen mug, enjoying the warmth for a moment. Then her thoughts turned dark again. She doubted that Éomer would be given a warm drink in his cell… or anything to eat. He would lie on the cold, bare rock in the darkness, hungry and thirsty and cold and hurting, at the end of his strength, wrapped up in his grief for his cousin and blaming himself for Théodred's death, with the horrifying prospects of his own execution in mind. Once again, her throat tightened dangerously.
Perhaps, there was at least something she could do about that. It would certainly be better than sitting here, pitying him from afar. With a slight snuffle, she raised the cup to her mouth and tested the temperature. When she found it not too hot, she emptied it with a few quick swallows and then set it back, moving backwards with her chair.
"I thank you, Lady Glenwyn," she said, rising to her feet. "Captain Céorl… Éothain…" A curt nod. "Please, come and see me when you are in Meduseld tomorrow. I will be waiting for you."
"We will be there, Éowyn." Éothain stood up with her. Following an impulse, he embraced her, and felt her responding. It was a good moment, a moment of much needed solace. "I promise you, we will do whatever we can for Éomer," he whispered and slowly stepped back. "Come to me with everything you have. Every concern, every worry, every idea… I am here for you. And not just I, our whole family."
Thankfully, she reached out and laid a hand against his cheek.
"They say friendship is proven only in hard times. I couldn't wish for a better friend, Éothain… and neither could Éomer. Thank you… and be careful." She looked up. "You all. Please watch out. We are all in the Worm's focus now."
At the door, she hesitated for a moment as she slipped into her fur cape, and her eyes went up to where the Golden Hall's shadow towered over Edoras. Part of her dreaded to go up there again, to re-enter the Worm's domain. And yet there was something she needed to do. Something dangerous… but necessary.
"Would you like me to accompany you, Éowyn?" Éothain asked, somehow sensing her dread. She gave him a small, ensuring smile.
"What should happen to me within the confines of our walls, Éothain? Thank you, but it is not necessary." Tightening the hood around her head, the daughter of Éomund disappeared into the night.
Drip… drip… drip…
It was the noise of falling waterdrops Éomer noticed first when he slowly rose from the depths of unconsciousness. He realised that he had been listening to the steady dripping for quite a while, but only now seemed his fogged mind able to apply a source to the sound.
Aside from the constant dripping, the silence around him was complete… and it was cold. So cold, in fact, that his teeth clattered. And not only his teeth… His whole body seemed to shake in the grip of uncontrolled tremors. Gradually, hesitantly, reality began to take shape around him… and if the shaking and the constant, dull pounding in the very, very back of his awareness were any indication, reality was looking grim.
Applying more will power to it than a simple task like this should have taken, the son of Éomund opened his eyes… to darkness.
'Where am I?'
In an instinctive effort to sit up, Éomer twitched… and gasped when the sudden movement cast him into a world of hurt. The assault came from all sides at once, tore into his awareness with sharp, powerful claws and knocked the air from his lungs. A searing bright flash of excruciating pain shot through his shoulders and neck, and a moment later, his head exploded into agony…followed by his entire body. He could not even focus on any particular, dominant ache; it all was a raging, throbbing inferno that felt as if one of their great herds had stampeded over him… And there was this nausea, even worsening now as he twitched and found that even this small reaction set off a chain reaction, causing the world to spin around him. His stomached heaved and another retching fit assaulted him, even though there was nothing left in it to be worthy of the effort.
Waiting for the bright explosions before his eyes in reaction to the movement to fade, Éomer at last succeeded in lifting his head and looking around. His breath coming in ragged, short bursts, he discovered that he could indeed see now. The surrounding darkness was not complete, it was illuminated by a torch somewhere further back in the tunnel. In its flickering glow, the iron bars of his prison materialized before him, effectively answering his prior question.
Slowly, carefully, the son of Éomund tilted back his hurting neck against the insistent cramping of his muscles… to find himself hanging suspended in the air by iron cuffs around his wrists. Well, that certainly explained why he couldn't feel anything beyond the agony in his screaming shoulder joints… and why even the smallest twitch would send him spinning on the chain that held him.
At last, some of the grim reality came back to him. His doomed tirade to sway the Royal Guard, and his attack on the Worm. He could not remember whether he had actually succeeded in snapping his adversary's neck. If so, it was certainly worth even this pain… but if his present condition was any indication, it was far likelier that he had failed, for even though his uncle had probably ordered him to be thrown into a cell, Éomer could not imagine Théoden having given the order to abuse him. No, this had to be the Worm's doing… which meant that he was still alive.
Allowing his head to sink back onto his chest as strength began to fail him, Éomer stared at the naked rock floor. The shredded remains of his tunic and shirt lay crumbled in the corner, while his armour had been taken away. He narrowed his eyes in disgust at the thought that perhaps, the halfblood would claim it for himself. Would the members of the Royal Guard tolerate that, too?
'They tolerated this. And they will tolerate that our worst enemy finishes me off right before their eyes.'
He would have spat had his mouth not been entirely dry. The thirst was almost as bad as the pain, making his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth, and Éomer doubted that he would be given anything to remedy this condition in the coming hours. Whatever misery the Worm was able to cause him in revenge for his assault, he would bestow upon him. That was a given. The beating had only been the beginning.
As his glance travelled aimlessly through the twilight of his cell, it came to rest on a tiny irregularity on the otherwise even floor. It reflected what little light there was, glistening wetly. He narrowed his eyes. It had…the shape of an ear? Or at least, the upper part of an ear? From somewhere of the depth, memory came to him: it was Felrod's. Using the short, but intense burst of energy his body had granted him in the emergency situation, Éomer remembered having slung his strong legs around his opponent's midriff as the half-blood had entered his range, and pulled himself close enough to sink his teeth into the guard's pinna. The resulting yell was still echoing in his mind and brought the ghost of a smile to his face as he revelled in the brief moment of satisfaction.
He had paid for it, though. Béma, had he paid for it…
Felrod's rage had been fearsome, and he had known where to hit. Blow upon blow had pelted down on his unprotected body – his stomach first and intensively, to force the air out of him and prevent him from bracing against the following hits. His ribs next, followed by the liver and kidney region… then his groin.
By then, his consciousness had already been reduced to instinct, and in his desperate attempt to escape the torment, he had kicked out and found a target. Retribution had come swiftly though, and efficiently. With a growl that would not have been misplaced on a warg, Felrod had hammered both fists onto his shoulders, pushing him down and almost forcing his joints out of their sockets. Forcing him to scream even against his iron determination not to grant his tormentors the satisfaction. The last thing Éomer remembered was a firm grip around his hips and another sharp downward jolt…
As he tipped back his head again to look up to his numb arms, wondering whether his shoulder joints were still where they belonged, Éomer's attention was suddenly claimed by the distant noise of an opening door. His heartbeat accelerated.
Was it already time for a second round, this time, with his arch enemy watching? He was not sure how much more he would be able to take. Perhaps, if he pretended to still be unconscious… Letting his head sink back onto his chest, Éomer listened with growing dread to the approaching steps. Two men, if he was not mistaken.
'Perhaps, it is not him.'
Perhaps, it was Háma… or Gamling, checking on the treatment of their prisoner. Perhaps, this ordeal would end when they saw him like this and reported it to the king. Perhaps—
The steps came to a halt before his cell. For a moment, there was silence, the only sound in the corridor the hissing and crackling of the torch. Withstanding the impulse to look up, Éomer strained his ears, hoping against hope…
"Open the cell."
It was Gríma's voice, even if it sounded strained and hoarse. His heart sank as he listened to the jingle of the keys, and then the sharp clack as the lock gave way.
"The bastard's still unconscious." Felrod's rumbling voice. It too, sounded pained, granting Éomer another short moment of satisfaction. "I did what you wanted, Master. You see, his face is untouched. As for the rest of his body… I did my best not to break any bones."
'I hope the rest of your ear rots off, too…' Éomer thought. 'Makes you even uglier…'
The steps entered his cell, and sudden brightness assaulted his pounding head even through his closed eyelids.
The light moved from left to right, down… and then flickered right before his face. For a moment, the sudden heat felt good.
"Good work, Felrod. Although I still don't understand how he managed to get you back. Only half conscious and chained… and still he helped himself to a piece of you."
To that, the halfblood muttered something unintelligible.
"Hmm…" the Worm made… and without warning, a searing pain assaulted Éomer as the torch was pressed against his side. With a pained hiss, he swung to the side, thus newly aggravating his shoulders. Thankfully, the fire was removed as quickly as it had touched him.
"This works even better than a bucket of water," the son of Galmod stated with obvious satisfaction, and sharply examined his victim's drawn features as he took a cautious step back. "Still feeling rebellious, Marshal? Would you like a second helping? Don't worry, there is more to come…"
Éomer did not deign to answer to the provocation. There was precious little of his strength left, and he could not afford to give it away for a scathing reply that would only cause him even more pain.
The Worm smirked.
"What? Cat got your tongue? Where is your usual spunk, son of Éomund? Or are you afraid?" He waited a moment longer, and when his opponent remained silent, took another few steps back… out of his cell. "Lower him to the ground, Felrod. I believe that, perhaps, for today, the marshal has endured all that he can stomach. I do not want him to die unless I allow him to."
The half-blood furrowed his brow.
"You want me to unchain him, Master? I wouldn't trust him."
"Oh, I don't trust him. But I know the son of Éomund well, and yet I have never before seen this look in his eyes. The cuffs stay, but you can lower him… for now." A deep, whistling breath. "One false move, Marshal, and you will find yourself dangling in the air again… for the remainder of the night!"
It was a frightening thought, but even without the threat, Éomer would not have found the strength to do anything but hang there, a bag of misery. With a strained creaking, the chain that held him was loosened… and he dropped to the ground, grunting at the impact.
Of course, the Worm laughed.
"This was not what I had in mind when I said that you should lower him, Felrod, but it will do. Now get out of there and lock the cell… and then leave us alone. I need to speak with our prisoner. Although…" A short moment of hesitation. "Do move him closer to the bars for me. It will make our exchange easier."
"As you wish, Master."
Again, the chain was grabbed, and then the half-blood dragged him by it to where Wormtongue was silently waiting in the flickering light. . If his body had not screamed at him over the new abuse, thereby claiming his full attention, Éomer would have been amused over the big guard's submissive tone. Grinding his teeth, he bit back the cry, determined not to grant the filth the satisfaction. At last, the movement stopped. Something landed on him, a light, scratchy, stinking thing.
"Here. Cover yourself, Marshal," Gríma said. "Otherwise, I fear that you will not live to see the light of day."
Once more, there was the sound of keys, and with a final clack, the cell was locked again.
"Will you further need me tonight, Master?"
"I think not. It has been a long day. You may retire, Felrod."
For a moment, there was only silence and the sound of the half-blood's fading footsteps. Fighting to catch his breath, Éomer tried to move his arms, but still found them numb and useless. With an only half suppressed groan, he shifted his weight away from his hurting hip and rested his head against the wall, thoroughly exhausted even from this small effort.
"You know, Marshal, I never really thought that I would actually get away with this," Gríma confessed at last. "That I would ever see you like this… and that your uncle would know about it and sanction it. This is… rather breathtaking."
'I bet it is…' Éomer thought. 'But perhaps it is only a broken rib.'
There was the sound of shuffling feet before him, and then Gríma leant back against the wall on the other side of the corridor. A grim, satisfied smile tugged at Éomer's mouth, and cautiously, he moved his head to grant his adversary an amused glance out of narrowed eyes.
"Even after having me beaten up and chained, and with these bars between us, you are still afraid of me, Worm," he uttered lowly, but loud enough for Gríma to hear. "Bloody craven…" There was still no saliva in his mouth. Pity. If there ever had been a worthier target…
"You call it 'craven', I call it 'smart'," Wormtongue replied evenly, not rising to the provocation. "There is no need to endanger myself needlessly. Aye, you may look like a wreck right now, and yet I am certain that you would try and grab me even through these bars if I gave you half a chance. Forget it. It's not happening. You will not get your hands on me again. At least not in this lifetime."
"Someone will. Soon. "
"Are you referring to those strangers you met on the plains?' The disdainful sneer clearly penetrated into the Worm's voice. He gave a short laugh. "Be assured that my men are already searching for them. Even if they wanted to make for Edoras, they will never arrive here. You can take my word for it."
The face of the man who had called himself Aragorn took shape before Eomer's inner eye. The strength and willpower in those grey eyes. The way he had drawn his sword, with a fluent move that bespoke his skill with the deadly blade. Somehow, he actually hoped that the Worm's thugs would run into him and his companions. It would mean fewer men left to do the filth's bidding.
"Why are you here, Worm?" he muttered, exhausted. "To gloat? Isn't that cheap, even for you?"
"I must admit that I still cannot fully fathom that the moment has arrived at last for all my plans to come to fruition. Even seeing you like this…" He inhaled deeply. "I worked very hard for this to happen, son of Éomund. All these past years, I worked ceaselessly for this triumph, and I am going to enjoy it now, no matter what you think. Your cousin is dead, you are as good as dead, your uncle is my puppet and the court will accept whatever nonsense he decrees… And your sister... well, your sister will be mine. At long last."
A shiver ran down Éomer's spine at the thought.
"Éowyn will cut off your balls and force feed them to you, if you ever lay a finger on her," he whispered, out of breath and strength. His mind swam, a result of pain and exposure. Once again he tried to grasp the blanket and spread it over himself, but as before, his appendages refused to follow his command, and he sank back.
"Oh, I do not doubt that she will try." Wormtongue settled back against the wall. Cautiously. So apparently, he was hurting. Just not enough. "Perhaps it would even be better to keep you alive, to make her do as I say. I have no doubt that she would agree to allow me into her bed if I threatened to make you bleed…"
"…but the people of Edoras need to see you die. They need to see the price for rebellion. And I will make them watch, Marshal. They will see you die on the gallows, but it will not be quick. I already made arrangements to have the trap door manipulated in such a way that it will open only partially, and instead of having your neck snapped, you will be strangulated. It will give them nightmares, even if they want to see you die for your betrayal right now! And no one will ever dare to move against me again once they witnessed that." Wormtongue clapped his hands in delight. "I can barely await the day!"
Éomer had no words left for a reply. His fogged brain refused to cooperate. His imagination came up empty when he asked it for a way to avoid what his adversary had just described so vividly. Even if Aragorn and his companions arrived before he was executed… they were only three.
And Éothain? His éored? What would they do once his death sentence was passed? Accept it… or try to free him?
"You have nothing to say to that, Éomer son of Éomund?" Slowly, Wormtongue pushed himself away from the wall, ready to leave. "Pity. I would have liked to hear your thoughts on this subject, especially the part concerning your sister. But perhaps, we can continue our exchange tomorrow. It is rather late."
He cast a last glance at his prisoner, an expression of deep satisfaction upon his pale face, before he turned to go.
"Sweet dreams, Marshal…"
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