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A RED SUN RISES
Author's Note: If any of you already read UNTOLD TALES OF THE MARK, you will find that I have started to use passages of the first chapter for this story. As already mentioned, I am planning to rewrite several chapters of the older story to make them (hopefully) flow seamlessly together... And now on with this tale of epic woe!
Chapter 19: JUDGMENT
The night had grown old when Éothain finally returned to his home. It was not only the wind that chilled him to the core, although it had definitely picked up. No, the conversation with Fredda, Cernhelm's young wife, had opened up entirely new chasms of despair he was not ready to face in his current beat and depressed condition. It was all too much.
And yet he did not wake his father as he silently slipped through the door. Éothain knew that Céorl had meant what he had offered him, and Béma knew that he was in desperate need to unload the things he had just learned… but they would all need their strength in the days to come. Later would be soon enough.
He had almost made it into his room, when he heard the door to his parents' chambers creak, With an almost soundless groan, he turned around. Of course, his father possessed the same instincts as all their warriors. Any unusual noise in the night needed to be investigated, no matter where they were. These were more than uncertain times, and the careless would not live to see the light of day.
"It took you a while, son," Céorl whispered as he walked down the corridor on bare feet and slipped into his robe. His inquisitive gaze locked firmly on Éothain's despondent appearance. A brow went up. "It's a long story, I suppose?"
"Aye. A long and sad story… not to mention alarming."
"Do you want to tell it to me now, or would you rather like to sleep on it, first?"
The sigh Éothain uttered came from the bottom of his heart.
"I doubt that I could sleep right now… although I do feel utterly depleted." He nodded. "Let us go and sit in the kitchen, Father. I do not want to wake up Mother, as well."
"She is already awake. But she knows that we need to discuss this amongst ourselves." Wiping the sleep from his eyes, the muscular warrior made it down the corridor with a light-footedness that seemed to contract his massive frame. As they reached the kitchen, Éothain pulled back a chair and all but let himself fall onto it while his father went on to pour a mug of water from a carafe. He offered it to his son. "Or do you want a hot drink? Tea?"
"Water will be enough, Father. Thank you." Thankfully, Éothain accepted the mug and waited until the older man had lowered himself to the seat on the other side of the table. "Where you awake all the time or did you hear me come in?"
"I waited for quite a while, because I didn't think that you would be gone for so long. Then I must have dozed off. " Céorl took a sip from his own drink and studied his son's expression with growing worry. "So tell me, Éothain, what happened? What did you find out?"
With a deep breath, Éothain leant back in the chair and locked eyes with the man who had raised him to be a warrior.
"I found out who Gríma's spy was… if there was only the one, which I seriously doubt now."
Céorl's could only stare at him.
"It was Cernhelm?"
"Aye… but from what Fredda told me, he was not at fault. He cannot be blamed for what he did."
Deep furrows appeared on Céorl's broad brow.
"I'm afraid I cannot follow you, son. Are you telling me that Cernhelm is responsible for the Marshal's arrestment and possible execution, but he can't be blamed for his betrayal?"
"Aye," Éothain replied tiredly. He shoved a hand through his hair. "That is exactly what I'm saying." He took another deep breath, grimaced… and met his father's confused gaze. "Fredda told me that a while ago, while we were on patrol, four of Wormtongue's men paid her a nightly visit… They beat her up badly, and then threatened to harm her child, as well, if she so much as breathed a word into the wrong ears about it. And when Cernhelm returned to her, she found him greatly changed. He was always a rather quiet type, but from that moment on, she said that it had seemed to her as if he carried the world upon his shoulders. Even more so when he saw the state she was in."
"So they ambushed him somewhere and threatened him, and when he came home, he saw that they meant it. What a filthy method!" Céorl spat. "Although it is just what I would expect from the Worm's thugs." Éothain nodded. "For how long had this been going on?"
"For more than a year. From time to time, whenever they felt that Cernhelm had not conveyed sufficient information on the éored's actions to them, they paid his family another visit to remind him what was at stake; always when he was with us on patrol, and always in the dead of night, so that they would not be seen." Éothain shook his head. "At last it seems that he could no longer take it. Fredda said that Cernhelm had seemed utterly desperate when he returned to her last night… a long time after the other riders of our éored had made it home. They must have waylayed and drawn the information about the strangers we met on the plains from him, possibly by force."
Spitting a curse, Céorl leant back in his chair, disgust and disbelief written on his broad features.
"She said that, upon coming home, Cernhelm just sat there at the table while she prepared him a hot meal…and there had been a look upon his face that had frightened her. That he had regarded her and the little one in such a strange way, as if he was about to make a decision of consequence. As if he was trying to come to terms with something horrible. And when she asked him what the matter was, she saw that he was crying…and he said that he could not do this any longer. He kissed her and his son goodbye and left…" Éothain swallowed and met his father' horrified gaze. "I should have noticed that something was not right. I failed him, Father."
Céorl shook his head and laid a hand upon his son's.
"With his wife's and his child's lives at stake, do you believe he would have told you the truth? Éothain?"
"I don't know!" Éothain banged his fist upon the table in helpless frustration. "Perhaps, I would have sensed that something was amiss. I should have known! We could have moved them out of harm's way! To Aldburg, or wherever! Somewhere where the Worm would never have found them!"
"Son!" Céorl interrupted him, but found himself ignored.
"I failed a man who trusted me with his life! How could I have been so blind and-"
"Son!" Louder this time, and this time, Éothain reacted. He paused, waiting for his father to continue. "Where is that place that Wormtongue doesn't know of? Tell me!" The older man's gaze pierced him, and he could not evade. "Do you not think that he has his spies everywhere? Do you not think that even if you had relocated Cernhelm's family to the smallest settlement in the most isolated valley of the Ered Nimrais, that Gríma would have found out eventually?... Perhaps with the help of another of his spies in your éored?"
For the longest time, Éothain could only stare back at his father in growing dismay. A colossal black wave of despair threatened to overwhelm him.
"That might be the most frightening thing about it," he whispered, barely able to fit the words through his tightening throat. "That we do not know how many of our riders are faced with the same dilemma right now. That they are being forced to spill the information about our doings to our enemy out of fear for their loved ones." He inhaled deeply through his nose and leant back. "What are we supposed to do about it, Father? What can we do? We cannot bring it before the Council. We do not have shred of proof."
For once, the man he had always looked up to for his experience and cunning had no answer.
"It was not your fault, Éomer. That snake wants you to believe that it was, but you know better. He left you no choice. You did the right thing when you rode north. You cannot afford to blame yourself; there are more urgent things you have to concern yourself with now… we must not let him get away with this!"
Théodred looked remarkably healthy despite the fact that he had been slain at the Fords of Isen only days ago, and his intense gaze tolerated no objection. Still Éomer felt unconvinced… and at the same time, he wondered why he felt no disorientation despite the fact that he suddenly found himself standing at said riverbank beside his cousin, and the fast-flowing waters flooded around their feet.
'Must be the concussion…'
He looked around in an attempt to get his bearings. The sky was of a stormy grey, and a slight drizzle had set in. The cries of the crows and buzzards above his head accumulated to a deafening din, befitting the terrible scenery that presented itself before him: dozens and dozens of slaughtered men and horses of his cousin's éored lay strewn on the ground around them, and even a brief glance revealed more familiar faces among them than Éomer would have cared to see. It really knocked the reality of the devastation that battle had brought into his skull.
'Perhaps it would have been different if we had been there,' he wondered as he allowed his gaze to travel over the scene a moment longer, feeling sick to his stomach. ‚Perhaps, they needn't have died…"
"Did you not hear what I just said, Cousin?" Théodred interrupted his despondent train of thought, and Éomer turned his head. "You had no choice. The Worm made sure of that. Had our roles be exchanged, I would have done the same, with the same heavy heart. Always assuming that we warriors stand a better chance of survival than the people in the settlements, even against superior forces. Father knows this, too, but he is completely under Wormtongue's sway. They all know it."
His words did not cheer Éomer up.
"And still… I wish I could have been at your side! Together we would have made that foul brood run. Not a single one of them would have returned to its master."
Théodred shook his head and sighed.
"I don't know, Cousin. The Worm's plan was faultless. I must admit that. Only now that it is too late can we comprehend its cunning. He and Saruman ordered their orcs to cross the plains exactly when they did because he knew that they would draw you north against Uncle's orders, which, of course, Gríma had suggested to him in the first place He knew that you would disregard them once you learned of the threat. At the same time, that cursed wizard summoned part of his forces to ambush me."
His tone became urgent.
"And it was an ambush, Éomer, do not let yourself be fooled into thinking that it was just one of their random attacks; they were sent to kill me. No matter what my men did, they charged right through them. They did not care for them. I was their target. There was nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. Even if you had been there… you would in all likelihood not have been able to change the outcome. And even worse: you could have died in that battle, as well. I'm not sure what those orcs would have done had they seen us close together. If a thousand Uruks focus on killing two specific men in a battle, there is nothing three or four éoreds can do to prevent that. They would have sacrificed their entire horde for the accomplishment of that aim."
Théodred fell silent, and his sombre gaze travelled over his fallen kinsmen. For a moment, Éomer could not think of an answer. His cousin had many more years of battle experience; he was known as one of the shrewdest strategists who had ever commanded the Rohirrim… and even he had been powerless against the last sword stroke. Eventually, the older man's attention returned to him.
"You cannot afford to torment yourself over this, Éomer. Put it behind you. Or use it to draw your motivation from it. That is all good. But right now, all your wit is needed to exact our revenge on that filth." A hard, questioning stare pierced him. "Tell me, Cousin, can I count on you? Will you avenge me?"
Éomer did not evade Théodred's gaze, but his own expression was less optimistic.
"You know that there is nothing I would like to do more, Théodred. Give me a knife and the Worm, and I will skin him alive… starting with his feet, and working my way upwards very slowly."
What a wonderful mental image that was… However, right now the reality was that he was the one who was bleeding.
"The tables have turned, though. They all believe that I did this to rid myself of you, because I want the throne for myself. And the few who are not certain yet are too craven to object… including the captains of the Royal Guard. They will wait and wait and wait until it is too late to act, even if they must be seeing where all this is leading to."
Éomer shook his head in frustration.
"I do not understand them anymore, Théodred. We used to be a brave people; a people unafraid of consequences whenever we witnessed an injustice. Whenever something was amiss, we would set it right, no matter how high the price for ourselves. When did that change, and how did Gríma accomplish that? How did he turn us into cravens?"
The man he regarded as his brother smiled at him compassionately, and reassurance lit up the Théodred's eyes as he laid a comforting hand onto his cousin's shoulder.
"I wish I could advise you, Éomer. Perhaps it helps you to know that you are not the only one who feels this way, and although it might feel like it these days, you are not the only one determined to fight against the traitor. There are others who will remain at your side until the end, whatever end that may be. You must seek them out now, and gather them. Rouse our people and lead them against Saruman and his minions. You will know what to do once the situation arises. Your best decisions were always made on the spur of the moment. Trust your instincts, Éomer, that is the best advice I can give you. Believe in yourself! In your hands, you hold nothing less than the fate of our people. You cannot afford to doubt now."
Éomer snorted, and deep furrows appeared on his brow.
"It might have escaped your attention, Cousin," he snapped. "But they've thrown me into the dungeon. And the way it looks, they are going to execute me in a few days. I am not free to do as I wish." Certainly. That was why he was standing here in the middle of the battlefield, and the crows passed over his head and quorked, quarreling for the best pieces of the carrion before they had even landed. This was getting confusing.
And yet the smile was still on Théodred's lips.
"You will find a way, Éomer. I have every confidence in you."
He paused and, drawing his eyebrows together, seemed to listen intently to something Éomer could not yet hear. But then the son of Éomund felt something - a soft, but persistent pull. Something dawned on him.
"Is this a dream?"
"Aye, Éomer. You are dreaming. But I fear that our time is up for now."
To Éomer's dismay, the pull intensified, threatening to carry him away.
"Théodred!" Already, his cousin seemed impossibly far away,
"I will be back, if you let me in again. Whatever help I can grant you, I am more than willing to give. Do not lose hope, Éomer, and do not forget: I trust in you!"
The soothing rushing of the water faded away and was replaced by the echo of distant steps. Hanging on to the sound of Théodred's voice until even the last vestige of it had vanished, Éomer opened his eyes… to the darkness of his cell, and grim reality.
With a deep sigh, the son of Éomund stared at the iron bars that blocked his view. For a moment, he lay motionless and listened into his body. During the long hours of his rest, the throbbing had ebbed away to a more tolerable level, although he suspected that any movement would change his condition just as quickly back to the way it had been when he had hung suspended in the air last night.
Cautiously, Éomer rolled his shoulders… and grimaced. Perhaps, the pain was not as bad as the night before, but it was still a long way from gone. He sat up. Slowly, deliberately, as to not awaken the beast that had taken up residence in his head since his clash with Felrod at the end of the hearing. Yet sure enough, a first wave of nausea assaulted him in reaction to his change of position, and he closed his eyes and breathed against it. A careful examination of the lump on the base of his skull revealed that it had gone down somewhat during the night, but he could still touch it only very gingerly.
With a resigned sigh, Éomer leant back against the wall and wrapped himself more tightly into the scratchy, stinking blanket. His thoughts returned to his nightly visitor, and a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Éowyn had taken a great risk to help him, and it was a comfort to know that at least someone stood still by his side after all the betrayals he had experienced the day before. Part of him was aching to see her again in the coming night, not least of all for the food she had brought him and without which, he would have been in a rather more precarious condition now… but even more so for the company and comfort she had offered him. And yet an even stronger part hoped that she had heeded his words and was already on the way to Aldburg. If only he could have believed it…
Éomer's expression darkened as he thought back to the moment when the Worm had asked him about the three travellers. The realization that someone in his éored had betrayed him had felt like a dagger to the guts. He wondered who it had been, and whether it had been only one of his riders… or had they all deserted him?
'Éothain would never desert me. – But wouldn't that endanger him, as well?'
For once, the son of Éomund was relieved to be woken from his dark musings by the sound of approaching steps. Not knowing what was to come, he pushed himself backwards, deeper into his cell, until his back touched the rear wall. If they wanted to beat him again, they would have to enter the cell. He braced himself for the coming confrontation.
It was Felrod. The big halfblood grinned as he came to a halt in front of the iron bars.
"Look who's already up! I guess you couldn't await this day, wondering what it has in store for you, forgoil bastard, isn't that so? Many wonderful things! Like… breakfast!"
He threw something into the cell. As it landed before him, Éomer saw that it was a fat rat with a broken spine. It was still moving and squeaking feebly as it slowly died. He narrowed his eyes, not wanting to let his disgust show.
"Leftovers from your own breakfast?" he asked instead. "How very kind… How is the rest of your ear, by the way? Rotting off?" With his chained hands, he picked up the piece he had bitten off his opponent's head, and threw it at him. "Here, this belongs to you."
The big man's piercing gaze skewered him.
"They are deciding about your fate right now, forgoil! This very moment!" he spat. "You can have a big mouth now, but in a few days, you will hang from the gallows and the crows will have their way with your rotting corpse. I'm sure that they will leave you dangling there until the last piece of flesh has been pecked from your bones, to remind the other strawheads of what awaits them if they don't obey."
"That may be so." Éomer answered the halfblood's gaze with a mocking stare of his own. "But even then you will still be the subservient lickspittle of a man half your size. A man who only uses you for his own ends, and who will give you the boot as soon as he reaches his aim. You're nothing but a dog to him. A dirt digger dumb enough to make promises to he never intends to keep for as long as he needs you. And you don't understand that. It would be tragic if it wasn't so amusingy."
He laughed… and was delighted to see Felrod's face turn dark with seething rage as the halfblood grabbed the bars with both hands.
"Can't get in to beat me up? Your Master has the only key?" Another laugh. "See what I mean?"
He was walking on the razor's edge here, aware that he would probably have to pay for his taunting later, but Béma, it felt so good to openly mock his opponent for a change! Hadn't Gríma complained about his lack of spunk only last night?
In barely suppressed rage, the big guard smashed his hands against the bars.
"I promised you great things for today, forgoil," he growled. "And I stand by that: what I did to you yesterday was child's play. Today… will be different."
"Your Master will never allow it, dog."
With an only halfway supressed roar, Felrod spat a yellow clot into his cell and left, fuming mad.
As his strength seeped away, Éomer gave up his body tension. He sagged against the wall, fingers clenched into the blanket. It was probably not smart what he had just done. But he had desperately needed this small victory. His mind and spirit had needed it. If he wanted to uphold at least a shred of his dignity and defiance, he could not allow for his last days to be lived in fear of punishment. If, up there in the council, they decided to hang him, he would walk to the gallows with his head held up high.
'How am I doing so far, Théodred? Are you satisfied?'
It was almost midday before Éowyn woke from a diffuse stream of nightmares and presentiments. She had made it through the tunnels, only to find her brother dangling from the ceiling of his cell, dead. And upon storming up the stairs to the hall, Gríma Wormtongue had sat there on the throne and declared himself King of the Mark, to the applause of the fully assembled Royal Guard and Small Council. Then there had been a dream where she had bumped into the Worm on her way through the darkness, the shock so great that it had woken her with a start. No, it had not been a restful night.
The daughter of Éomund turned on her back and stared at the ceiling with unseeing eyes, for a moment content with doing nothing. Béma knew she had worked hard these past hours, and hopefully, something good would result from it.
It had been obvious to her that her visit had lifted Éomer's spirits, even if the state she had found her brother in had shocked her. Despite his brave attempt to hide the true extent of his misery from her, each overly careful move had given true condition away. Likewise his rather short protest against her being there once she had passed him the food. Éowyn wished only that she could have brought him more. After the strenuous journey north and back with nothing to eat and drink but the contents of his saddle bags, the soup and wine had probably only sufficed to take the tip off the ravenous hunger and thirst he must have felt… and now she would have to wait all day again until she would feel safe enough to repeat her journey in the dark.
Which reminded her that she, too, was hungry.
With a deep sigh, Éowyn sat up and swung her legs over the side of her bed. It was most unusual that nobody had woken her yet, but perhaps they assumed that the past day's demands had exhausted her far beyond her limits. Which was not entirely untrue, even if her streak of defiance was still stronger.
Then she remembered: she had locked herself in last night, and the key was still in the lock. She had given them no chance to wake her. Oh well Éowyn thought as she rose to her feet, it was not as if the rest had not done her some good. She could not have dealt with another one of the Worm's surprise visits last night.
Quickly, Éowyn grasped her robe and walked over to the living chamber, slipping into the garment and fastening the belt around her slim waist along the way. With sudden hesitance, she unlocked the door and opened it. The hall… was nearly empty. There were only few members of the Royal Household too be seen around the hearth fire, one of whom was just jumping to her feet in response to her opened door. With quick steps, Maelwyn approached her, relief written all over her young face. She came to a stop and dropped into a quick curtsey.
"Good morning, my Lady. It is good to see you. I was beginning to worry that perhaps, you had fallen ill."
Éowyn gave her a short, appreciative nod.
"I am well, Maelwyn, thank you. Yesterday was quite demanding, so…" She interrupted herself and wrinkled her brow. "Where is everyone?"
Her handmaiden followed her gaze.
"Oh, they are all in the council chamber, my Lady. They have been there for quite some time." She inhaled and lowered her eyes as she beheld the increasing frown on her mistresses' face. Of course, it was her brother's fate which was being discussed behind these closed doors. Maelwyn could not begin to guess how that thought would feel. Perhaps, she could lift her lady's spirits with the prospect of food.
"May I bring you breakfast, my Lady? You must be hungry."
"Aye." At last, Éowyn's attention returned to her. "Aye, Maelwyn, I would appreciate that. And I would like some hot water, too."
"A bath, perhaps?"
"A bath?" It sounded tempting, but Éowyn remembered suddenly that Éothain and his father had promised to come and see her during the day. She had no idea when. She wanted to be available for them when they arrived. "No, not now. Later perhaps. Just let them bring enough for the morning toilet. Thank you."
With a last ruminative glance at the council chamber's door, Éowyn retreated into her own rooms.
"Gentlemen…" Gríma Wormtongue lifted his hands, effectively silencing the men at the round table, and his gaze travelled over their deeply concerned expressions.
"Gentlemen, we have been in this room the entire morning. We discussed yesterday's revelations at great length, as we did the letter of the Lord of Westfold earlier. I honestly do not believe that there will be any new developments in this matter now, and – to say it clearly – I do not believe that there is the need for an official trial. We learned everything we needed to hear straight from the horse's mouth yesterday. The Third Marshal of Riddermark admitted freely that all accusations against him are valid. He confessed his treasonous doings, and he called for rebellion right within this hall, before he attacked me with the attention to kill. We are in possession of all necessary information to reach a verdict. What say you?"
For a moment, the older men stared in silence at him… and then at each other.
"Forgo a trial?" Lord Aldhelm asked doubtfully. "But our law specifically calls for it. How could we ever justify this to the public?"
"We could declare yesterday's hearing a trial," Lord Aethelmaer, the oldest member of the council, suggested cautiously. "We certainly need no further witnesses to understand what happened. I would be content with this solution."
"So would I," the Master of Coin, Lord Eardbearth, declared, stroking his impressive grey beard. "And I would not worry about the people of Edoras – they are outraged by what the Marshal did. Any measure that will lead to a quick passing of judgment will find their consent. I am ready to render my verdict."
"Very well. Lord Aldhelm?" Gríma Wormtongue's gaze pierced the old man, who drew his eyebrows together.
"I must admit that I am not entirely satisfied with this suggestion, Lord Gríma."
"What is it that you still need to hear, Lord Aldhelm?" Wormtongue narrowed his eyes. "Is there still anything unclear for you? Or is your opposition only for protocol's sake?"
Oppressive silence ensued as all council members stared at the unwilling one in their midst. At last, Aldhelm breathed a sigh.
"Very well… If it is the wish of the other council members, I shall be ready to do my part in these proceedings."
Wormtongue nodded his approval, and turned around to his king with a curt incline of his head.
"Sire…may I ask for your rule? Should we schedule another - official - trial to hear again what was revealed to us last night… or would you like us to proceed with the finding of our verdict?"
For the longest time, Théoden did not react. The King of the Mark stared with unseeing eyes at a point somewhere far beyond the walls of the council chambers and gave no indication that he had heard his counsellor's question.
Wormtongue was just about to ask again when the old man's gaze found him.
Gríma was not certain that he liked the King's expression. Thengel's heir looked excruciated, as if the word he had uttered was causing him great pain. Or was the reason rather his deteriorating condition? In any case, it was time to bring this meeting to an end and secure his triumph.
"Thank you, Sire. So now, I am asking you, honoured members of the Small Council of Edoras, the following question: do you find Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of the Mark, guilty of treason against the Crown? Do you find him guilty of disobedience and rebellion against his superiors… and of the attempted murder of a high-ranking member of the Royal Household?" He inhaled deeply and lifted his right hand. "I do."
His piercing gaze travelled from face to face.
"I do," Lord Eardbearth declared first.
"I do," Lord Aethelmaer followed his example.
It was plain to see that it tore Aldhelm apart not to follow the proceedings that were clearly stated in their law, but at length, he too, uttered a low: "I do."
Satisfied, Wormtongue turned to the King.
"With this unanimous vote, my Lord, the decision is left to you. For protocol, let it be said that with your veto, you have the power to negate the Council's verdict." He inclined his head in an implied bow. This time, surprisingly, Théoden did not let him wait for long.
"I will not veto the Council's decision. My nephew is guilty of those crimes."
At last! His triumph was complete. A surge of adrenaline flooded Wormtongue's veins as he realised that, with the King's words, his goals had been achieved. For once, he found it difficult to keep the utter delight he felt out of his face. There was still something left to do, a final nail to be hammered into his adversary's coffin…
"I thank you, Sire," he said in a treacherously even voice. "I hereby declare that the Small Council of Edoras finds Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of Riddermark, guilty of the previously mentioned crimes. The sentence for treason… is death by hanging. Who of the honoured council members supports it?" He lifted his hand… and after a short period, found himself joined by the other attendees… except for the King. The King, who all of a sudden seemed increasingly stressed-out. Wormtongue was worried to see beads of sweat appear on the old man's brow, and his hands clenched the edge of the table.
"Sire? May we have your vote?"
Théoden's head turned to him with a jolt, and with dismay, Gríma realised what he was going to say even before he said it.
"You cannot kill him. You cannot kill Éomer. I forbid it!"
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