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A RED SUN RISES
Chapter 19: Plotting
"You heard me, Gríma!" The dismay in Théoden King's eyes was replaced by sudden rigour, and his tone grew firm. "My nephew will not be executed."
The council members looked at each other in growing confusion. Wormtongue narrowed his eyes in barely contained ire.
"Sire, we are talking about the man who put your son into his grave. Surely you do not want his betrayal to go unpunished?"
The milky blue eyes stared at him with previously unknown determination.
"I did not say that, Counsellor! Of course I want him punished… just not killed."
"Then how else would you want the Third Marshal to be punished for such a capital crime, my King?"
Gríma's calm tone stood in stark contrast to the building feeling of frustration and uneasiness, and instinctively, his fingers went up to massage his bruised and hurting throat. After all the work he had put into bending the King of the Mark to his will, where was Théoden's sudden opposition coming from? Was it a last rest of his old self that reacted to the extreme prospect of sending his nephew to his death… or was there something else at work? Had someone else interfered? But how?
"Would you like for Éomer to spend the rest of his life behind bars? Surely you do not want him whipped and then set free, able to do further damage to the Mark?... My Lord King?"
"Sire, if I may…The law gives us another option!"
Of course, it was Lord Aldhelm, that troublesome old geezer, who spoke up. Gríma struggled to hold back his indignation over the old man's interference as he claimed Théoden King's attention.
"Yes, Lord Aldhelm?"
"Sire, there is no doubt that the Third Marshal's crime was grave, and therefore, his punishment must be severe, to send a clear signal to the people of Riddermark that rebellion does have consequences. If you do not want for your nephew to be executed… there is only one other option open, apart from keeping him in a cell for the rest of his life, which probably no one really wants. Instead of killing him, he could be banished."
"Banished?" Théoden narrowed his eyes. Aldhelm nodded eagerly, for once ignoring Wormtongue's dark stare.
"Aye, Sire. Forced to leave the Mark in an appropriate amount of time, under pain of death should he ever be seen again in our realm after that term. His name will be obliterated from our country's history." Hoping for approval, the old council member looked around. The son of Galmod shot him an eloquent glance.
"And you seriously believe that the son of Éomund would leave the Mark if we gave him, let's say, five days to disappear? That he would leave behind his sister and his friends and admitted defeat? That he would go peacefully and carry on with his life somewhere else? Is that what you truly believe, Lord Aldhelm?" A side-glance met Théoden King to let his ruler know what he thought about the counsellor's suggestion.
To his growing annoyance, the old council member did not shrink from his challenge.
"The Third Marshal knows from own experience how well-guarded our borders are. And he would be aware of the fact that, if any of our éoreds spotted him, he would be a dead man."
"And yet, as a Marshal of the Armed Forces, the son of Éomund also knows how to avoid being seen, Lord Aldhelm," Gríma sneered. "The usual patrol routes are deeply engraved into his memory, having guarded them himself for all these past years. Alas, I fear that he would know only too well how to sneak back in and wreak havoc… all the more as I do not feel too certain about the Eastmark's loyalty. Marshal Elfhelm has been like a surrogate father to him; I would not be surprised if he were, indeed, open to the idea of rebellion against the Crown. Instead of ridding ourselves of the relatively small problem Éomer poses now, we might make it infinitely worse by allowing him to live. If we do not put out this fire right now, the entire East-Mark might rise against us."
His bruised throat started to hurt in earnest again. It was time to bring this meeting to an end before he lost his voice.
"The East-Mark might also rise against us if we execute their beloved marshal!" Aldhelm insisted, earning himself his opponent's heartfelt disgust. "I'm not certain how they would take it. Not at all!"
"I stand by my decision: Éomer is not to be killed," Théoden repeated. A firm look found his counsellor, who once again asked himself where the King had found this new energy. Certainly, it was not a result of the potion he had given him just this morning. "Lord Aldhelm's suggestion makes sense to me, although I also do share Counsellor Gríma's concerns. There must be a way, however, to prepare the banishment-scenario to the point where it works."
"I am quite certain that it could be done without greater problems," Aldhelm concurred with a satisfied glance at Wormtongue. "Independent… observers… could be distributed to those settlements whose loyalty might be questionable, to report back to us and ensure that the Marshal will receive no help from potential perpetrators. That way, beginning conspiracies could be discovered before they gained strength."
Wormtongue could see where this meeting was going. Very well, it made no difference. His plan to rid himself of his worst enemy could easily be altered. Instead of killing the son of Éomund right before the people's eyes, which might have served as a splendid reminder to anyone feeling equally disposed to causing problems, he would see to it that the troops he had at his disposal would find and finish Éomer off in secrecy. He could live with that. After all, Saruman was already amassing his army for the final strike against the Mark, and soon, none of the Armed Forces would have the time to think about rebellion… or be alive to consider it. It was only a matter of weeks now. He inhaled.
"Very well… If that is indeed your wish, Sire, I shall be happy to organise it for you."
For a moment, Gríma felt Aldhelm's suspicious glance upon himself over his sudden approval. He did not care. Théoden granted him a curt nod.
"How quickly can it be realised?"
"I will get to work right away once this meeting is over, my King. I will put down your orders in writing, and should be able to send out the errand riders within the next two hours. That way, if we release your nephew from the dungeon the day after tomorrow, all settlements along his way will already be informed. Whoever is found helping the marshal, will be facing the hangman's noose."
He looked around and found nothing but approval in the faces before him.
"Very well. Then I hereby declare this meeting over."
Théoden pushed back his chair to rise to his feet, and at long last, Wormtongue was relieved to catch the first signs of exhaustion in his ruler's bearings. It seemed as if only the extreme situation had lent the old man additional strength, and now that it had been solved to his satisfaction, it was fleeing him just as quickly. There had been no miracle cure. Although the question remained why Théoden-King had so vehemently rejected the idea of his nephew's execution. He had almost seemed dismayed by the thought, when he should have been glad to bring his son's murderer to justice.
"Would you like to tell me the phrasing for those messages, Sire, or do you trust me to draft them by myself?"
It was amazing how quickly the king's condition seemed to deteriorate now. Wormtongue was aware of the fact that the other council members had noticed that, as well, and hesitated to leave.
"I have every confidence in you, Gríma. I trust that you will find the right words. Alas, I fear the long hours in this room have worn me out. I need to lie down."
"Would you like me to help you to your chambers, Sire?"
With a small wave of his hand, Théoden stopped him, a thankful, but tired expression upon his face as he leant heavily on the table.
"I will manage, thank you. It is time for the members of my household to see me on my own feet again for a change."
"Just as you like, my Lord. Surely they will be glad to see your health improved."
"May I accompany you, Sire?" Lord Eardbearth offered. "Just in case? I'm in no hurry."
"I will not say no to that, Lord Eardbearth." A last, brief glance found his right hand. "You may wake me if something needs my attention, Gríma."
"I am certain that will not be necessary, my Lord. At last, it would seem that all things are finally under our control."
Wormtongue inclined his head in an implied bow, and waited until the others had left the room before he began to gather his notes. He would write those messages in his study. Another big step to be taken on his road to victory… and yet he could not help it, his mind turned back once again to the king's surprisingly vehement veto.
It could not be that the marshal's sister had anything to do with that, could it? What had Éowyn discussed with the old man after they had thrown him out of the king's chambers that almost forgotten morning a few days ago? The proud daughter of Éomund had almost stormed out not long after he had sat down by the hearth; her expression despite her best efforts of hiding her inner turmoil telling of great distress. And Théoden himself had seemed thoroughly shocked when Gríma had returned to discuss his nephew's fate with him, although he had refused to share the reason for his dismay to this very day.
Not that it mattered. In a few days, Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of the Mark, nephew of Théoden King and heir to the throne of Rohan would be history, and there would be nobody left to deny him what he wanted…
In her chambers, Éowyn sat by the window and fought with her breakfast. Torn between the contradicting impulses to jump to her feet and do whatever she could to help her brother, and the knowledge that – in order to do this most efficiently – she needed her wits and her strength about her, the daughter of Éomund forced herself to dig into her bowl of porridge. Yet it seemed to her that every spoonful grew to monstrous proportions in her mouth before she could finally swallow it.
How was Éomer faring right now? Had he been able to resume sleeping in that cold cell, dispirited, beaten and abused? And would the Worm at least grant him some food today? Despite of what her brother had asked of her, she did not think about leaving him behind for her own safety. It was not even a question. Tonight, she would try once again to bring him food, no matter what Éomer thought about it.
The true question for now was: was there something else she could do for him? Éowyn could not deny that her brother's condition had shocked her. Never before had she seen Éomer so frail and miserable, and she was afraid that Wormtongue and his brutish minion would pay him another visit today, to continue what they had begun. How could she prevent that? Certainly not by complaining about her brother's state to the King or the Royal Guard. Not without giving herself away. But perhaps… she could point them that way? Surely, it would not wake anyone's suspicion if she inquired about Éomer's condition after having been forced to witness how he was beaten unconscious only last night?
Making a mental note to herself to find Háma before she left the Golden Hall, Éowyn had leant back in her chair, and the frown upon her delicate features became even more pronounced. Previously, she had always felt more inclined to bring her problems to Gamling, but she knew no longer what to think about the other Captain of the Royal Guard. It had been obvious last night that Éomer had asked for his support shortly before he attacked Wormtongue. There had been a moment of silent communication between them. And yet the old man had done nothing. He had forsaken her brother, and at the moment, Éowyn could not find it in herself to forgive him. Of course, Háma had likewise remained passive, but at least, he had explained himself to her… with clearly audible regret in his voice. Which did not make his betrayal much better… but perhaps, he would feel more inclined to pursue her request.
A strong gust howled outside her window and roused her out of her bleak considerations for a moment. It could no longer be denied that the predicted storm was well underway. Snowflakes were driven against the glass and blown away just as quickly, and the grey sky behind it promised even more. The temperatures had also dropped further since last night, Éowyn surmised. She felt cold even though she had only recently stoked the fire in the hearth. If she was already freezing up here in her chambers, how cold was it in the dungeon now?
It was time to get moving. Each moment she wasted sitting idly here only thinking about Éomer's predicament, meant that he suffered. She could not allow that. Resolutely, Éowyn sat down the only half-finished bowl of porridge, and pushed back the chair to rise to her feet.
There was also something else she needed to do, preparations to be taken in case it really came to the worst and she would have to fulfil her oath. She was determined to follow through on her threat, and it had not even been a hard decision to make. If their uncle truly ordered Éomer's execution, there would be nothing left to live for her… only more torment by the Worm. More difficult had been to decide on a way to do it, but at last, the daughter of Éomund believed to have found one.
With a deep breath, Éowyn turned to go. In a way, she dreaded to leave the temporary sanctuary of her chambers, but it was time to get things done before Éothain and his father arrived at the hall. With some luck, the Worm would still be in the council meeting.
Gathering her warm winter coat, Éowyn opened the door… to an almost empty hall. Relieved, she slipped through the opening and closed it behind herself, her gaze already searching for the burly Captain of the Royal Guard. Yet it was Gamling she detected in the twilight before the King's chambers, his attention already roused. For a moment, their eyes locked, and even over the distance, Éowyn thought she saw the self-loathing in the old man's expression.
Pointedly, she looked away. There was nothing she could do for him. And nothing that she wanted to do. If Gamling felt miserable, it was because he had done a horrible thing. She would not absolve him.
Slipping into her coat, Éowyn turned toward the massive doors and granted the door wards a curt nod when the young men opened them for her. The icy wind assaulted her at once, and she hurried to put up her fur-lined hood. Blinking against the onslaught of the snow, she turned her back into the gusts and felt herself shoved forward by their sheer force.
"Lady Éowyn?" The Captain of the Royal Guard was clad into a thick green cloak and looked half-frozen. He held out a steadying hand for her, which she gratefully accepted. "This is no weather to be outside, my Lady."
"Yet it is bound to get even worse, Háma, isn't it?" she replied with a dark glance at the grey sky. The big warrior nodded.
"Alas, it looks that way. They say that this might be the last great storm of the winter. I certainly hope so; it is really time for spring to arrive." He eyed her curiously. "Is there anything I can do for you, my Lady? Some errand to be seen to? Surely you do not want to walk down into the city in this weather."
"There is indeed, Háma." A cautious glance at the other guards. The big halfblood was not among them. That was good. She turned her back on the other men and lowered her voice. "I am worried about Éomer. The last time I saw him, he was unconscious. And it will be freezing cold in the dungeon. I was wondering whether you could go and see what his condition is. I am not convinced that Gríma's guards took very good care of him." She swallowed. "Please?"
Although his hood hid part of his face, Éowyn could already see the expression on the warrior's face, and her heart sank. It was an apologetic one.
"I wished that I could do that for you, my Lady, but it was decreed only last night that only the counsellor and his private guards were allowed access to the dungeon for as long as your brother is there."
She shot him an incredulous stare.
"By the King himself… upon Gríma's insistence." Háma shook his head. "Perhaps, if you asked him yourself…"
Éowyn furrowed her brow.
"After what happened last night? You heard him with your own ears, Háma! He threatened me when I would not step away from Éomer. He implied that he would have to treat me like a traitor, as well, if I insisted on remaining by my brother's side. Do you honestly believe he would allow me to see him?" She lowered her voice even further, to the point where the warrior had to lean forward to understand her words over the wind. "And if no one else is allowed to visit Éomer, do you not ask yourself what terrible things they might be doing to him down there? Do you not think that the Worm would want to pay my brother back for all the problems Éomer has caused him over the past years, before the execution? Especially for his assault last night? What if he tortured him in his cell? No one would know about it."
The Captain of the Royal Guard stared at her in horror.
"Alas, I am afraid that your fears are justified, my Lady. I certainly would not put it beyond him."
"And do you believe that that would be done to Éomer in the King's name? That my uncle would specifically order for his nephew to be tortured?"
Háma took a deep breath… and narrowed his eyes as he cast a dark glance at the door behind his back. When he turned his attention back at her, Éowyn knew that she had won.
"Very well, my Lady. I will try to see your brother. But I'm afraid that I cannot give you any promises. The situation is rather…unusual." He snorted in frustration.
"I understand that. And I thank you, Háma." Éowyn gave the man's arm an affectionate squeeze. "It is good to know that there are still some people in this household, for whom common decency is not an unknown term."
From the guard towers below, the permeating sound of horns reached their ears over the roaring wind, commanding their attention.
"Riders," Háma noted, his eyes narrowed against the onslaught of the snow. "That should be the rest of your brother's éored, my Lady. I suppose they were informed about the state of affairs on the road to Westfold and returned to meet here, before they continue to Aldburg."
Éowyn inhaled. The riders' return meant probably that Éothain would wait to inform them about the latest happenings before he visited her. So there was still time to see to the fulfilment of the other half of her plans. She turned to go.
"Lady Éowyn?" the Captain of the Royal Guard inquired, confused. "It is really not the weather to be outside needlessly. If there is something else you want done, can I not send someone for you?"
With a faint smile upon her lips, Éowyn shook her head.
"I will not be gone for long, Captain. And I doubt that my horse would be allowed in the Golden Hall."
The big man returned her smile, relieved.
"Alas, I, too, believe, that this would be problematic."
Éowyn turned away and descended the stairs to the path with quick steps. Aye, she would visit her mount again… but her true destination was the smithy in the stable yard. Or rather, the house nearby, where their blacksmith Bergfinn lived with his wife Yalanda… their healer. Somewhere in her drawers and shelves, the old woman was bound to have the solution to her problem…
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