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A RED SUN RISES
Chapter 18: A Dangerous Undertaking
The wind had again increased, and it had grown even colder when Éowyn returned to the Golden Hall. Granting the door wards a curt nod as she passed them, the daughter of Éomund slipped through the door in a flurry of snowflakes. As she paused for a moment to blow warm air into her hands, she looked around… and was relieved to see the benches and tables next to the hearth fire deserted. Apparently, it was as late as it felt to her, and all activity in the hall had died down.
Best of all: the Worm was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps, he had already retired for the night, and lay in his bed now hurting from bruised or even broken bones, fighting to breathe through his severely swollen throat. What a good thought that was! With quick steps, the daughter of Éomund made for her chambers and closed the door behind herself, only allowing herself to relax when she heard the clack of the lock.
A quick survey confirmed that her chambers were indeed as empty as they had looked, and that her adversary was not waiting for her silently in a corner. She wouldn't have deemed it beneath him. But at least for now, she felt truly alone…
The thought to visit Windfola before she made for Meduseld had suddenly occurred to Éowyn on the way up, and she had followed that impulse without questioning. Resulting from the Worm's curfew, she had not seen her mare for quite a few days, and she was sure that it would not raise suspicion that she had been there… contrary to the true destination of her late excursion. She had seen to it that straw was still sticking to her cape upon her return, and that there was at least a whiff of the horse's scent on her clothes and hands as she passed the guards.
The mare had been happy to see her owner, and while Éowyn had likewise enjoyed their brief reunion as she rubbed the grey's brow and buried her face in the warm fur, the true reason for her surprise visit had been her saddle bags. Finding them where she had left them after her last ride, she had pulled out her water skin and, with a brief glance around to see whether she was still alone, lifted the folds of her dress to stuff the small leather pouch beneath the cloth firmly around her waist. With the cape back in place, there had been nothing to see for anyone.
To make the stablehands remember her visit, Éowyn had then asked them for a couple of apples and carrots for Windfola, fighting the urge to storm up the path and go through with her undertaking, now that she had everything she needed. But it had been too early… and it still was.
As she slipped out of her cape, Éowyn beheld the tray on the table near the window. Not knowing when her mistress would return, Maelwyn had left her supper before she had returned to her family. That was good. It would have only raised suspicion had she ordered something at this late hour.
Producing the waterskin from beneath her winter dress, Éowyn walked over to the table to inspect the tray's contents. There was an earthen bowl with a lid, and a mouth-watering smell of potato soup rose from it when she lifted it. Beside it on a plate, there were two thick slices of dark bread, an assortment of cheese and fruit, and a slice of cold roast. Holding her nose over the tankard, Éowyn found it to be mulled wine, and the drinking glass beside it appeared to hold apple juice. Perfect.
Briefly dipping her little finger into the soup, Éowyn found it lukewarm, likewise the wine. Carefully, she carried both over to her fireplace and positioned them near the glowing embers. So far, so good. The wine would go into her water skin once it had sufficiently warmed, and the soup…
In search for the right vessel, Éowyn's glance travelled over the massive wooden shelves by her bedside. Over the years, she had amassed a variety of keepsakes there, some useful, some priceless… and some only of sentimental value. A herd of little wooden horses, once lovingly carved by her father. An array of candles, too beautifully poured to waste. An exquisitely carved wooden box that held some of her mother's jewellery. Books. What she needed stood on the shelf above: a silver tankard with a beautifully embossed white horse on green enamel, an heirloom of their house. It had once held her collection of interestingly coloured pebbles; now she would use it to bring her brother an unexpected meal.
Satisfied with her preparations, Éowyn walked over to the window and opened it. Crisp air and tiny snowflakes assaulted her once again, but the daughter of Éomund hardly noticed as she looked out. There were only few lights left in the houses below, but they confirmed to her that it was still too early. She could not afford to get caught. As hard as she found it, she would have to wait at least another hour, better another two hours.
Éowyn sighed. She had never been the patient type, sharing that trait with her brother. Shutting the window again, she pulled back the chair and sat down with a doubtful glance at her plate. She felt too nervous to eat, and yet she knew that she, too, would have to uphold her strength for the following days.
'Hold out,I'm coming, Éomer,' she thought. 'Wait but a little while…'
"Éothain? Èothain, wake up!"
The voice was persistent and refused to go away, no matter how much the son of Céorl fought to ignore it. Trying to turn on his other side, he suddenly felt a hand upon his shoulder, giving him a gentle shake.
"Éothain, wake up. There is someone at the door."
Reluctantly, he opened his eyes… and saw his mother's concerned face hovering above him. He groaned.
"It's the stablemaster. He said it's urgent."
"The stablemaster? Beorhdric?" Éothain sat up, all of a sudden wide awake. "Is anything wrong with Scatha?"
His mother shook her head.
"He only said that he urgently needed to see you."
With a worried glance, Éothain slipped out of the bed and rose to his feet, inwardly asking himself for how long he had been sleeping. From the way he was feeling, it could not have been more than a few minutes.
"Can you please tell him to come in? I will be there shortly. Thank you, mother."
Quickly he slipped into the shirt and breeches he had carelessly thrown onto the nearby chair, fiddling with the leather cords while his mind raced. Béma, what was it now? Was there no end to this day's horrible tidings? First upon his return to Edoras, he had learned from his father that the Prince had been killed in the Westfold attacks. Then Éowyn had brought them the news of Éomer's imprisonment. And now… what? Were the stables on fire? Had Scatha fallen sick? He barely dared to imagine why Beorhdric had knocked at their door in the middle of the night.
Slipping on his boots, Éothain was at last ready and all but stormed out of his sleeping chambers… to find the stablemaster waiting in the hallway, together with his parents. When the man beheld him, the shaken expression engraved in his weathered features caused Éothain's stomach to tighten.
"Captain Éothain! I apologise for waking you at this ungodly hour, but something happened in the stables."
"Something concerning our horses?" Éothain furrowed his brow. Beorhdric shook his head.
"Alas, it is one of your riders. Cernhelm. He… he killed himself."
Only a few minutes later, Éothain saw with his own eyes the sight that had so badly shaken the usually so calm and controlled stablemaster. He swallowed, understanding the man only too well, as he stared in stunned shock at the dangling body. The way it looked, Cernhelm, one of their youngest riders, had entered his horse's stall while everyone had been sleeping, climbed onto the wall… and hung himself from the rafters.
"I did not hear him enter," Beorhdric admitted with a deep, pained sigh. "I mean… it had been a long day, and... and…" He shook his head in denial and swallowed. "Then the horses grew restless and I woke… and I saw him hanging there. I ran to help him as fast as I could, but one look was enough to see that he was already dead."
"You are not at fault here, Beorhdric." Cernhelm had a family, Éothain remembered with dismay. A young wife and a small child, still in the crib. What had caused the young rider to snap and kill himself? What desperate situation had he found himself in to have chosen this horrible ending, when he had had so much to live for? Béma, what a mess…
"Let us take him down."
"I will help you," his father's voice reached him from the stable's entrance. Éothain turned around and saw in the older man's eyes the same stunned disbelief that he himself was feeling. "Any idea why he did this?"
Éothain shook his head.
"We never spoke much. He was always rather quiet. I only know that he had a wife and a small child, which would have given him all the more reason to find another solution, whatever his problem might have been."
Together, the three men worked quickly to cut down the dead man and lay him into the straw.
With deep sorrow edged into his broad features, Céorl looked down upon the corpse.
"His wife must be sick with worry," he said, and meet his son's disheartened glance. "She should not have to wait any longer, although the tidings will come as a shock. Are you up to it… or should I go? You do look like death warmed over."
"This is such a nightmare…" Éothain sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I appreciate your offer, Father… but I was his captain. I owe it to his family to inform them."
"This is always the hardest of our duties." Céorl laid a hand upon his son's shoulder. For a moment, the two warriors shared a moment of mutual compassion and understanding. "Go, Éothain. Beorhdric and I will see to it that his body is properly tended. If you want to talk later, I will be there for you."
At last, the time had come. Trying to rest but only having listened to the accelerated beating of her heart for the last hours, sleep the furthest thing from her mind, Éowyn came to her feet. Another brief glance out of the window confirmed to her that the city was now lying in darkness. It had to be the middle of the night. No more excuses for delaying the necessary.
Quickly moving around in the twilight of her room, the daughter of Éomund assembled what she needed on her bed and then turned to take the bowl of soup out of the fireplace. It was now warm enough, and she poured its contents into the tankard and secured the lid. If there was one thing she couldn't afford, it was the smell of soup still hanging in the air when the Worm came to visit her brother again.
The wine likewise was ready, and she poured it into her waterskin. An apple and a wrapped slice of the bread with the roast on it went into the bags of the dark green coat she had chosen for this excursion. It was the darkest piece of clothing she owned, and even if she didn't think that she would encounter any guards in the dungeon at this hour, it would provide at least a certain level of protection from unfriendly eyes.
The question was only whether Gríma knew of the tunnel system. She feared that he did. In ancient times, it had been hewn into the rock to give the royal family a chance to escape in the case of an invasion. Knowledge of these tunnels was strictly limited to its members, but as the Worm seemed to know almost everything, Éowyn deemed it safe to assume that its existence was not new to him. But would he anticipate her desperate effort to help her brother? She hoped not.
'He cannot think of everything,' she tried to soothe herself as she slipped into her coat. With the full waterskin and the food package in its bags, she felt rather ungainly... but it would do. Picking up the tankard, Éowyn walked over to where a large tapestry covered the back of her bedroom. The fabric was extraordinarily thick and hung straight down. The iron bar worked into its lower end made sure that nothing moved even when the window was opened, giving the casual visitor not the slightest indication of the tunnel's mouth behind it.
Cautiously, she lifted the fabric and listened into the darkness beyond with baited breath, her pulse hammering in her ears. Apart from that, all seemed quiet. So it was now... or never. Silently, Éomund's daughter slipped into the tunnel. She had only once walked in it before, back when Éomer and she had still been children. They had only just relocated to Edoras after the death of their parents, and upon assigning them their chambers, Théodred had made them acquainted with the tunnel system. She remembered how excited Éomer had been as they followed their cousin through the hill's intestines only in the light of a torch, and she also recalled the feeling of utter isolation and dread that had assaulted her here. She had been glad to return to daylight after an hour, and had never set foot in them again for all these past years.
Now she was glad they existed, and tried to recall the important details... such as how smooth the floor was. Where there any stairs? Where did the various junctions lead to? She remembered that there actually was one that led to the dungeon. Somehow, she would have to find it in complete blackness, as she had not dared to take a candle with her.
Sliding along the tunnel wall with her one free hand, Éowyn moved ahead cautiously, every few steps pausing to listen. So far, everything seemed quiet. The ground sloped gently downward, leading her deeper and deeper into the ancient rock. The noise of her own breathing seemed greatly increased in her ears, but then again, it was probably only her imagination... and the knowledge that she was doing something that would cause her serious problems if she were detected.
Éowyn had no idea for how long she had walked through the darkness, when her hand came upon an opening in the wall. Her heart jumped into her throat.
'Is this it?'
Again she listened, and when nothing moved, Éowyn set foot into the new tunnel, inwardly praying that, if she had to make a hasty retreat, she would find the way back to her chambers without problems. Before her, the absolute blackness now gave way to flickering twilight. Torches. It seemed as if she had indeed found the right path. Cautiously, she proceeded... and found herself at the end of a long corridor only moments later.
´Béma, it's cold in here!'
Only a single torch further back was burning as a night light. It illuminated a row of iron-barred doors. There was no guard in sight. It looked as if the Worm had indeed not expected her to emerge from the tunnels; apparently, he had placed his guard only at the door in the hall. And still, Éowyn moved with infinite caution through the silent corridor, increasingly feeling like a deer in the forest during hunting season the further she stepped away from the sheltering tunnel.
The first cell... was empty. She was not sure how many prisoners the dungeon held at the moment. If any of them cried out when they saw her, it would be unfortunate. All the more reason to tread lightly and not wake them. The next cell. No one there. Feeling her tension mount as she slowly approached the light, fingers clenching the tankard, Éowyn moved on. The next cell... empty. She had almost passed it when a sudden impulse caused her to lower her eyes to the space near the bars. There was something... or someone? A dark heap on the ground before the door.
She halted and turned around. Approached the cell and narrowed her eyes. What was that? A filthy, threadbare blanket...and there were feet sticking out on one end. Feet clad in riding boots. On the upper end, a few strands of hair spilled over the fabric… hair that might have been golden in the daylight.
With a soundless gasp, Éowyn knelt down and stuck her free hand through the bars. Cautiously, she peeled back the blanket… to find a familiar face beneath it.
Her urgent whisper was not rewarded with a reaction, which worried her greatly. Once, years ago, she had made the mistake of trying to wake her brother who had fallen asleep in his horse's box with a gentle touch at his shoulder… only to pay for her carelessness with a couple of blue and black bruises on her throat and back, when his warrior's reflexes had cast him into defensive action before he had fully woken.
Cautiously, Éowyn gave his shoulder the gentlest of shakes.
And still he did not stir. Taking in what she could make out of her brother's appearance in the sparse light, Éowyn swallowed hard. Even in sleep, Éomer's features seemed weary and drawn, grief and pain edged deeply into his features. There was dried blood on his chin. Iron cuffs had been tightly fastened around his wrists, still attached to a heavy-looking chain that snaked further into his cell, where it seemed to be connected to a massive bolt in the wall. She was dismayed to see blood there, too, where the iron had bitten deeply into his skin.
"Oh brother," she whispered, and gently smoothed back a strand of his hair that had fallen into his face. "What have they done to you?" At last, there was movement beneath her fingertips. Éomer was moving his head ever so slightly…and opened his eyes. The expression in them was drowsy and confused as he regarded her silently for a moment that seemed to take forever.
"Éo… Éowyn?" His voice was barely audible. It nevertheless caused the tears she had held back so far to freely run down her cheeks. "Are you real?"
"Aye, brother." She could not wholly suppress the sob, even though her dismay was the last thing she wanted him to see. "Aye, I am here. This is not a dream."
Éomer would have wagered a large amount that the result of the Worm's wrath would keep him awake all through the night, and yet only a brief time after his adversary had left, exhaustion had blown out his awareness like a candle. He had plunged into a deep, dreamless sleep, not unlike unconsciousness. There was no pain there, and no hunger, and no thirst. No blame for his cousin's death, or dismay over the daunting prospects of his nearing end. It was a necessary shutdown to keep his body functioning. The point where even his considerable reserves ended.
He would have been happy to remain in this place, and yet it seemed that he was denied even this small favour. Something – or someone – was calling him back. Even with his eyes closed, Éomer could not shake the distinct feeling that he was no longer alone.
'Won't even let me sleep, filth, will you?'
Stubbornly, he kept his eyes shut. Then someone touched his shoulder. Gently. That confused him greatly, because the Worm certainly knew better that that. He knew that his life would be in danger if he gave his captive even the faintest of chances… such as this. Also, it was not Wormtongue's voice who uttered his name now.
The gentle touch reached his face, where it smoothed a strand of his hair away with a butterfly's touch.
"Oh brother…What have they done to you?"
Against his better knowledge, Éomer decided to risk a glance. A dark shape was kneeling on the other side of the bars, very close, its face unrecognisable in the twilight. And yet the hand that had touched him, the hand that was just now slowly being withdrawn… undoubtedly belonged to a woman. He recognized the slim ring around the middle finger, an heirloom of their mother's.
'It cannot be. She cannot be here!'
"Éo… Éowyn?" Was she crying? His sister never cried. "Are you real?"
"Aye, brother." She was crying! "Aye, I am here. This is not a dream."
With considerable effort, Éomer pushed himself up into a sitting position, distinctly noticing how stiff his body had become now that the bruises had been given the time to fully develop. And his head… well, it certainly had not improved yet. Forcefully, he bit back the groan that rose from his throat, not wanting to deepen Éowyn's worries by letting her know how messed up he really felt. With hands which slowly seemed to belong to his body again, Éomer clutched the bars of his prison.
"What are you doing here, Éowyn?" he whispered urgently. "This is dangerous!"
She shook her head in denial and grasped his hand.
"It is the middle of the night. Everyone's asleep. And I used the tunnels…"
Slowly, it dawned on him. The secret tunnels… Over the years, he had almost forgotten about them. But of course, his ever resourceful sister had remembered them, even though she had hated the place when their cousin had first shown them around.
"Also, I wanted to bring you something."
With her free hand, Éowyn picked up the tankard and carefully manoeuvred it through the bars. An intense glance found him. "They didn't give you anything to drink or eat, I presume?"
"No." Although with his stomach hurting like this, Éomer was not sure whether he would actually manage to keep anything in it. Carefully opening the lid, he peeked inside… and the mouth-watering smell of warm potato-soup wafted into his nose. "Oh…"
Setting the vessel's rim against his lips, he swallowed the first mouth full… the warm, creamy liquid doing unbelievable things to him on its way down. His torn lip protested briefly and found itself ignored. Had anything he had ever eaten in his life tasted as good as this? The warmth spread through his body and chased the shivers away for a moment that felt almost too good to be true.
"Oh, Éowyn…" He closed the lid again. If the Worm smelled so much as the slightest whiff when he next came to visit his prisoner, his sister would be in deep trouble. "You shouldn't endanger yourself for me… but this is so good! How can I ever repay you?"
"By surviving." The look in Éowyn's eyes had never been more serious. "By killing the Worm… in the worst way you can think of. Skinning or burning him alive, or quartering him would be acceptable methods."
'Fat chance of that happening,' Éomer though with a bitter smirk, and shot his sister a fitting glance over the rim of the tankard as he took another sip. It felt even better than the first one. New energy began to course through his abused body. He lowered the vessel with a deep sigh.
"Can't promise you that, as much as I'd like to." He shook his head… cautiously. Béma, that hurt! With his free hand, Èomer gingerly touched the big lump that had formed almost on the base of his skull. It had not gone down yet. He grimaced. "I mean… I will be ready to kill him if he offers me even the slightest chance… but he is cautious. You know him as well as I do."
"Aye… We will get him, though." Éowyn narrowed her eyes. "Somehow. Sometime when he least expects it."
From somewhere further down the corridor, a faint chink reached their ears, and with a start, Éowyn turned around. For a moment, sister and brother held their breath… until a low squeak and the sound of small feet scurrying over the bare rock told them that the disturbance had no human origin. Slowly, they allowed themselves to relax again.
"Rats." Éomer inhaled… and cursed silently when his ribs protested against the movement. "There are more than enough of those down here, I'm afraid." Once again, he raised the tankard to his lips and emptied it. With a thankful smile, he passed it back to his sister. "That was the best potato soup I ever tasted."
His enthusiastic remark made her smile for a moment.
"Which means something, as you never really had a taste for it." From the folds of her coat, she produced something else. A… waterskin? Éomer narrowed his eyes.
"What is that?"
"Something to wash the evil taste away with." She winked as she passed it to him.
Snorting in mild amusement, Éomer unscrewed it and held his nose over the opening. An incredulous look found Éowyn.
"Mulled wine? I must be dreaming this. This is too good to be true."
He sat the rim against his mouth and for a moment, revelled in the taste and the warmth of the liquid as it ran down his throat.
"I've got even more," his sister said, digging another small package out of the other bag. She showed it to him. Bread… and a slice of roast. Éomer furrowed his brow as he lowered the waterskin. The soup had reminded him of the fact that he had barely had anything to eat these past days, aside from their usual scarce road supplies… and yet he felt pretty sure that his bruised stomach would not tolerate solid food. Regretfully, he slowly shook his head.
"I wish I could eat that, but…"
"Your stomach?" Éowyn understood, and the brief smile turned into a frown. "What did the Worm do to you?"
"Set his Dunlending dog on me after they had chained me up," he spat. "I'll survive though… until they'll execute me."
All of a sudden, Gríma's threat was reverberating in his head.
'Instead of having your neck snapped, you'll be strangulated!'
"They will not execute you!" Éowyn declared forcefully, and he laid a finger upon his lips to quieten her.
"They will not execute you," she repeated, lowlier, but with the same intensity. "I will see to that. That's a promise!"
'And your sister… your sister will be mine!'
All of a sudden, the wine in Éomer's stomach turned sour. Grasping the bars with his chained hands, he brought his face closer to her, and in the flickering torch light, his eyes blazed with urgency.
"No, Éowyn! You cannot do that! And you must not return here. Please! Go and see Éothain tomorrow at first light. Ask him to escort you to Aldburg. You must not remain in Edoras! If you want to promise me something, promise me that you will leave the city tomorrow!"
She stared at him in utter consternation… and sudden anger.
"Leave? While you are in here? With a death threat hanging above your head? How could I ever do that?!"
"You'll have to." He swallowed. "Please. If there is one thing you can do for me…"
She shook her head.
"I can see to it that they won't kill you. I know what to do. Éomer, trust me! You cannot afford to send me away!"
"Éowyn, please!" In his sister's eyes, Éomer saw the same, stubborn streak that they both shared. It usually meant that any further word would be uttered in vain. But this was too important to yield. He had to make her understand the danger she was in. "Théodred is gone, and once the Worm has ridded himself of me… you know what he will try."
That silenced her for a moment… but not for long.
"If he does, I will kill him. And not even the Royal Guard will be able to say anything against that." She pressed her face between the bars. "Have faith in me, brother. I can help you… but only if I remain here. We will yet defeat him."
With a deep sigh, Éomer kissed her gently on the brow, the heaviness in his heart not diminished. Through the bars, she embraced him. They remained like this for a while, taking comfort in each other's presence without knowing whether fate would allow them to see each other again. At last, Éowyn pulled back and carefully stored everything she had brought with her in and beneath her coat again.
"I have to go. We should not stress our luck." She inhaled deeply. "I will be back, brother."
A thankful, but sad look was Éomer's response.
"Think about what I said, Éowyn. Please. It would make everything easier for me if I knew you safe in Aldburg."
Slowly but resolutely, she shook her head.
"I cannot do that. And you would not do that, either, were our roles exchanged, or if it were Théodred they kept down here. You would do whatever was in your power to free him. Don't deny me the same right." She rose to her feet. "With Béma on our side, we will overcome the Worm. Have faith." And with a last defiant look, she left.
For a moment, Éomer could still hear the echo of her cautious steps, until silence weighted down heavy upon him again. He settled back into his prior position, not certain whether sleep would come to find him again this night.
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