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A RED SUN RISES
Chapter 21: No Easy Answers
Éomer had no idea what time of the day it was. Down here in the hill's intestines, in the weak light of the torches, the hours passed indiscriminately, one like the other. The only measure he had to judge for how long he had already inhabited his cell were hunger and thirst. After the unexpected meal Éowyn had provided him with only last night, his most urgent needs had been quenched for a while. But now his stomach felt like the burning centre of the world again, and thirst had overtaken the various aches of his body as the worst torture. His mouth was dry as paper, every swallow hurt, and in addition to the insistent hammering originating from the top of his skull, a dull, throbbing pain had developed right behind his brow in response to the lack of fluid in his body.
For how long was the Worm planning to keep this up? And where were Aragorn and his companions? Already on the way to Edoras? Still searching for their missing friends in the north? Or had they already encountered his adversary's forces… to a bad end? With an only half suppressed grunt, Éomer shifted his position. He refused to believe that any force that scarecrow could muster was able to overcome the heir of Isildur. From what he had been able to gather during their brief encounter, the three warriors had made it from the far north all the way down to the Mark through uncounted perils. They would not fall prey to a ragtag horde of wild men.
'Where are you to give me some words of encouragement when I most need them, Théodred? You were always there for me before…'
Once again, his cousin's face materialised before his inner eye. His easy smile, the compassion in his blue eyes when he had comforted them after their parent's death. The concentration and urgency whenever Théodred had laid down his battle plans to their riders. Many times, their éored had joined his cousin's in their forays, and they had fought side by side with the greatest efficiency. Those had been the greatest days.
Most of the things Éomer knew about warfare, he had learned from either Elfhelm or his cousin. Battle strategy, weaponry, scouting… Whatever it had been Théodred had discussed with them by the campfire, Éomer had absorbed it all, endlessly fascinated by the older man's observations and wisdom. He had no doubt that Théodred was in large parts responsible for his fast rise through the ranks, from innocent recruit to shrewd Third Marshal of Riddermark.
Yet there had also been dark days. The problems Éowyn and he had faced upon their relocation to Edoras – the loss not only of their parents, but also of their friends. Homesickness, the feeling of not belonging. Théodred had been endlessly patient with them. Despite his busy schedule whenever he was in Edoras, short days packed with endless council meetings and strategic discussions with the other captains of the Armed Forces, Théodred had always taken time out to make himself available for his cousins, quickly becoming an older brother for the siblings.
And Théodred had taken his side whenever Wormtongue had disparaged him in front of the King. He had not only not believed the blunt accusations that everything Éomer did was for his own ends and that he craved to rob his cousin of the throne of the Mark, no. Théodred had stood up to the Worm in many heated confrontations when even his father had seemed doubtful. He had been an unwavering, loyal friend, a brother in all but blood… and now he was gone.
With a deep sigh, the son of Éomund leant back and massaged his throbbing brow. For the first time since they had thrown him into this cell, he felt utterly and truly alone. The men on whose loyalty he had counted – his éored, the Royal Guard – had decided to throw him to the wolves. Whether they actually believed the Worm's accusations or had remained passive out of fear did not matter to him. There and then, they had been presented with the chance to free the Mark of its oppressor. Instead, they had chosen to rid themselves of their protector.
Éomer snorted. It was beyond him how anyone could be so shortsighted. Was it not obvious to them that Wormtongue would not be done after he had ridded himself of two of the Mark's mightiest man? Was it not obvious that he would not rest until he had replaced each and every man of power with one of his minions? Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, the warriors of the Royal Guard would share his experience in the dungeon, if they were not killed outright once the Worm had positioned his forces for the final blow. They would realise their mistake then. But then, it would be too late.
His train of thought was interrupted by the sound of the dungeon door. Éomer tensed and listened, not daring to hope. Someone was coming down the stairs. The Worm and his Dunlending dog again? Or was it Háma or Gamling, coming to end his ordeal and make amends?
'Béma, what are you dreaming of?'
With a self-deprecating snort, Éomer settled back against the rock. Now that the steps were closer, it was clear to him who his visitors were. Once again, he braced for what was to come. Would they beat him again? But no, surely in this case, the Worm would have brought more men with him. If only Felrod was accompanying him, he probably did not intend to open the cell door. Had something happened the filth wanted to tell him right away? Had someone died, or had there been another disastrous attack? Or had his men met with Aragorn and his companions and, against all probability, emerged victorious from the fight? Béma forbid, it could not be…
The shadows of the two men preceded them as they approached his cell. One of them seemed to… carry a tray? Éomer furrowed his brow. Was he hallucinating now? The next moment, his observation was confirmed when Gríma appeared on the other side of the bars, followed by his Dunlending guard… and indeed, the big man was carrying a tray, from where the smell of soup wafted into his cell. To his anger, his stomach reacted instantly with a demanding rumble and betrayed his disposition to his enemy.
The sound brought a thin smirk to the Worm's pale features as he came to a stop before the iron bars.
"You seem to be hungry, Marshal. How convenient."
The halfblood's towering shape appeared behind him, a sullen expression upon his broad face as he stared at their prisoner. Éomer granted him a brazen grin, surmising from the big man's bearing that he had asked for retribution for the past morning's insult and been denied. And now, adding insult to injury, the Worm seemed to even have him reduced to the status of a serving wench. If that wasn't something to gloat over!
"Despite the punishment last night, you appear to be in high spirits today, Éomer son of Éomund." If Gríma had noticed the silent duel between his guard and his prisoner, he did not show it. "That is good to see. I might even be able to improve your mood further."
"Certainly," Éomer turned his attention to the scrawny counsellor. "For example, you could draw your dagger and fall on it. That would improve my mood permanently."
The Worm did not honour his quip with a reply. Instead, he lifted a hand, and only now Éomer saw that his adversary held a piece of clothing in it. One of his shirts, by the look of it. He furrowed his brow. What game was Wormtongue playing now?
"You see what I have here, Marshal?" To Éomer's surprise, Gríma threw it into his cell. It landed in front of his feet. "Put it on. It is too cold down here to have you sitting around half-naked. And we could hardly lead you to court bare-chested. The honourable members of our council would get a fit."
Éomer narrowed his eyes.
"So you have come to get me for the trial? With only your Dunlending dog to protect you from me?" He could see the effect of his insult on the big man's face.
"Oh, there will be no trial," Gríma said evenly.
"What?" Éomer inhaled. It was the law, wasn't it? The trial would have given him additional time, time for Aragorn and his companions to arrive and turn the tide.
"Graciously, you already supplied us with all the information we needed to reach a verdict. What else would there be to discuss to reach the conclusion that you are guilty of every crime we accused you of?" He shrugged. "The verdict has already been spoken, Éomer son of Éomund. There is no need for anything else. Two days from now, the sentence will be carried out."
His words punched the air from Éomer's lungs. For the longest time, the son of Éomund could only stare back at his torturer, distantly aware of the fact that it was Felrod now who grinned at him with all the malice he could muster. At last, the ability to speak returned to him.
"So… this is my last meal?" He nodded at the tray, desperate to hide his upwelling emotions from his nemesis.
"That depends on your behaviour," Wormtongue elaborated calmly. Very obviously, he was enjoying himself very much. "Cooperate and eat, or play the stubborn mule as usual, and go to your grave hungry and thirsty. The choice is yours."
"And what is it that you want me to do in exchange for it?"
"Nothing more than that you put on that shirt… without causing the usual problems. I do realise, of course, that you cannot put it on with your wrists chained. Thus my suggestion is that you come forth to the bars and Felrod opens them. You slip on your shirt, get the handcuffs back on… and only then will you receive the contents of this tray." Gríma lifted the drinking glass and spilled a few drops of its precious contents to the floor, causing Éomer almost bodily pain at the sight of the wasted fluid. A thin smile appeared on his pale lips. "I do realise, of course, that – by this time – you must probably be quite thirsty."
Shooting his adversary daggers of pure hatred, Éomer contemplated his options. Having his wrists unchained might present him with an opportunity to… what? Free himself? Hardly. From the Worm's description, he did not get the understanding that the door to his cell would be opened. Wormtongue himself would, in all likelihood, stay away from the bars as far as possible, probably with the keys to the door in his pocket. If he grabbed Felrod while the filth opened the cuffs, all he could hope to gain was snap the halfblood's neck, and even that was questionable given his current condition. He would not get out, he would not escape. He would not be able to kill his enemy. And all that for the price of freezing and further torture by hunger and thirst. It was not a question at all.
Swallowing his pride, Éomer struggled to his feet… with far more difficulties than he would have liked to admit. For a moment, dizziness threatened to overwhelm him, and he closed his eyes and leant heavily against the wall, while he waited for the cell to stop spinning. No, it was indeed impossible that he would be able to take on Felrod in this condition. Best to get through with this as quickly as he could.
With slow, deliberate movements, he bent down to lift up the shirt and then trudged toward the cell door. For once, his adversaries remained silent, and Éomer was thankful for that. His weakness dismayed him. Was it only the lack of food, or was it the result of the beating? What a sorry sight he would be for the people of Edoras if he staggered to the gallows like this. Hopefully, Éowyn would not be there to witness it. At last, he reached the iron bars and grabbed them, thankful for something solid to hold on to.
"Make one false move, strawhead, and you are going to regret it," Felrod growled. He set down the tray and suddenly seemed tense as he dug the keys out of his pocket, apparently not trusting their prisoner as far as he could spit. Under different circumstances, Éomer would have found his adversary's unease amusing. As it was, he already had his hands full with remaining upon his feet.
"Aye. I understood that," he mumbled, more to himself than to the Halfblood. The first lock opened, then the second. Hesitant at first to relinquish his hold on the iron bars, Éomer pulled the cuffs from his arms and gritted his teeth. Angry red circles remained where the material had deeply bitten into his flesh the night before. He slipped into his shirt, careful not to lose balance… and remained motionless while the Dunlending chained him up again. The sound of the closing locks unleashed a terrible feeling of finality and desperation in him. Had this been his one chance to free himself?
With an amused snort, the Halfblood stepped back from the door.
"Hard to believe that this should be the mighty Third Marshal of Riddermark," he sneered. "It seems I managed to beat some respect into you last night, after all!"
As much as Éomer would have liked to spit into the man's face, his mouth was too dry.
"You will get your comeuppance, dog. Don't worry." He breathed hard against the nausea. "Someone will stick his sword into you very soon, and you will die a wretched death."
"Not as wretched as your death, forgoil!" Felrod could spit, and he did so. "I cannot wait to see you wriggling like a worm on a hook while the sling slowly strangles you. It will be the sweetest moment of my life!"
"Felrod?" Gríma narrowed his eyes. Reluctantly, the Halfblood turned around. "Leave. Your work here is done."
The big man took a deep breath, and for a moment, words of objection seemed to lie upon his tongue… Yet when his angry glare met his master's unperturbed gaze, he swallowed them, and – with a last sinister glance at the prisoner – disappeared down the corridor. For a moment, silence ensued… then Wormtongue shoved the tray closer to the cell with his foot, where Éomer would be able to reach it.
"I will kindly overlook this exchange," he said. "Here is your reward, son of Éomund. Ration it well, for you will not get anything else until tomorrow."
Éomer's gaze briefly brushed over the tray. It was not terribly much that the Worm bestowed upon him, and yet he was surprised and did not understand.
"Why?" he groaned and slowly allowed himself to slip down to the floor. "Why are you doing this?"
His nemesis shrugged.
"I will not risk that anyone amongst the Royal Guard takes pity on you when they see you like this. And I will not risk that you die of exposure. It would be too easy a death for you."
For a moment, his pale eyes impaled his adversary… but suddenly, he turned his head, and a frown appeared upon his face as he stared into the darkness behind the torches' reach. He took a few steps into the direction of the tunnel… and then turned back to Éomer, who had followed his gaze with a sense of foreboding.
"It seems that I forgot something last night," Wormtongue stated evenly. "Very well. It will not happen again. If you believe that help will arrive for you from that direction, you are grievously mistaken, son of Éomund. You better pray that none of your friends try it, or I'll have them executed right here before your eyes… Enjoy your meal."
With those words, he left, and all that Éomer could do was sit on the ground and stare into the flickering light while the Worm's threat echoed through his mind.
"Please, Béma… I never asked for much, but… make Éowyn leave!'
The weather had further deteriorated when Éowyn returned from her foray, satisfied with what she had achieved so far. In the pocket of her coat, her right hand closed around a small phial. It was her way out of the worst case-scenario, a last act of defiance open to her before all that she feared became reality.
Their healer, who had given her the potion – which was commonly used as a sleeping draught - had no idea what she had done, of course. Yalanda had handed the phial over to her with her usual words of warning: "No more than three drops, my Lady. Please keep this in mind. Anything more will make you very sick. It could even kill you. I am very reluctant to give you this."
And yet the old woman had understood her plea, for how was anyone supposed to sleep soundly if a member of their family was thrown into a cell and threatened with the prospects of execution? The tidings of last night's hearing had spread through Edoras like a wildfire, and in the end, had helped the daughter of Éomund to achieve what she had sought. Now for the next thing that needed her attention…
But Háma was no longer at the door when she approached Meduseld. Was he asking the Worm for permission to see Éomer right now? Nodding her thanks to the doorwards, Éowyn stepped into the hall, glad to be out of the savage wind. A quick glance around did not reveal anything suspicious to her. Gríma was still nowhere to be seen, and so it was with a feeling of vague relief that she crossed the great hall over to her chambers. Yet just before she could slip inside, Éowyn heard the sound of approaching steps behind her. With sudden dread, she turned around – but it was only Gamling. Apparently, the Captain of the Royal Guard had waited for her, and his gaze was urgent as he came to a halt before her, indicating a bow.
"Apologies, my Lady, but may I have a word with you?" he asked, and it was easy to guess what he wanted to discuss with her. Éowyn inhaled, and her expression told the old warrior clearly how ambivalent she felt towards him.
"I have barely returned, Lord Gamling," she replied in a frosty voice, and saw that it hurt the man she had, not long ago, treated as her confidante. "I am cold and hungry. Whatever it is you want to tell me, it will have to wait." She reached for the doorhandle.
"It will not take long, my Lady... and this is a favourable opportunity. He is not here…"
Éowyn narrowed her eyes as she turned her head. What was this supposed to mean? She decided to be honest.
"I will not lie, Lord Gamling: I am not much inclined to hear you out after what you did to my brother yesterday. He counted on you, and you betrayed him."
The old warrior lowered his head. His voice was but a whisper.
"Please, Lady Éowyn, can we not lead this discussion in the safety of your chambers?"
With a deep breath and an only half-suppressed sigh, Éowyn opened the door and stepped through, indicating for Gamling to follow her inside. Leaving the phial in the pocket of her coat, she slipped out of it and laid it over a chair before she turned around.
"Well?" Never before had she seen the Captain of the Royal Guard so miserable. 'Good!' she thought. 'He deserves it.'
"My Lady," Gamling began. "I caught that glance you gave me when you left… and I think that, perhaps, there is something you forgot."
Furrows appeared upon Éowyn's brow.
"Éomer asked for your loyalty last night, Captain. You denied it to him at a most critical time and handed the scourge of the Mark victory on a plate. What else is there that matters?"
"Your uncle." Gamling stepped closer. "The King."
Éowyn shook her head.
"I do not understand."
"Théoden-King is still very weak. He has not yet fully recuperated from the last time Gríma withheld his potion from him. Had I followed your brother's call, with all of the Royal Guard following my example, what would have ensued?" He stared at her, urgency written on his weathered features. He desperately wanted her to understand… but she couldn't comply.
"Freedom for the Mark?" she answered sharply. "The end of our darkest days? No more lies and oppression and scheming beneath our roof?"
Gamling shook his head.
"Perhaps… but at the price of your uncle's life. We still do not know how to offset the effect of Gríma's potion. Are you ready to sacrifice him? Already? You told me only these past days that your uncle is still living within this body. That you have seen him and talked with him for brief moments, whenever the influence of the poison had weakened."
Éowyn swallowed and her eyes began to burn, as much as she hated it.
"All I know is that I am not ready to sacrifice my brother, Lord Gamling. You said that you would make up your mind about Éomer's guilt after you saw his reaction to our cousin's death. Well, you saw it now. What conclusion did you draw from it? Did my brother look like a man satisfied with the results of his deeds to you? Did he only pretend to be pained by the news of Théodred's death?"
The warrior lowered his gaze.
"I do not believe that your brother intended the terrible outcome of his actions, no. I could even see the sense in his explanation for his decision to disobey the Prince's summons. But clearly, by withholding vital information about of those men he encountered and his decision to let them pass, he violated one of our most important laws."
"You heard him," Éowyn countered. "He explained why. And wasn't his reason for doing so what all of us would have wished for all these dark, long years? A means to the Worm's end? You should have thanked him; instead, you stabbed a dagger into his back!"
She saw the man before her flinch, realising that she had hurt him. Gamling straightened.
"You want to help your brother, my Lady, and I understand that. I also understand that it must be hard to choose between your uncle and your brother. And yet I ask you to also regard my point of view. I served your uncle for most of my life. I went into battle with him when he was still a young man, before he became our king. We saved each other's lives many times. I cannot simply give up on him. Not before everything else has been tried."
"Then you prioritise the life of one man over the lives of many? A man who has lived his life? Is he more important than those who still have most of it before them?"
Gamling stared at her, not wanting to believe what she had just said.
"This is your uncle we are talking about, Lady Éowyn. Your uncle! The man who raised you after your parents died! You fought so hard for his life only a few days ago, and now…" He shook his head in consternation.
Éowyn lifted her chin. Her expression was sad, but determined.
"Aye, Lord Gamling. I did. But now I find myself at a crossroads: I have to choose between the two only remaining members of my family. It is a choice I wish on no one. It is the most excrutiating thing I have ever been forced to do." She swallowed. "However, it is also a choice that will determine the fate of the Mark. My brother stands for its protection. He will tear himself in two to ensure that our people are safe. In fact, he just did. You cannot dispute that."
Her piercing gaze tore into the old warrior's eyes and held them. Gamling remained silent.
"My uncle, however… Gríma Wormtongue turned him into the Mark's bane. With the help of his potions, he broke Théoden-King's will and imposed his own upon him. You know that. And if you allow him to carry on with this until he has eliminated every single protector of our realm… you are part of the problem, my Lord."
Her words left the Captain of the Royal Guard speechless. For a while, silence stretched between them as they regarded each other. The tension of the confrontation seeped from Éowyn, leaving her feeling thoroughly drained.
"It seems that you, too, have a choice to make, Lord Gamling. And you will need to make it quickly, before one of the two options is gone for good… That is all I have to say. Now, please excuse me, I need to rest… and send me Maelwyn when you see her."
The man she had trusted for most of her life still stared at her with dread in his eyes. Éowyn understood him, but there was nothing she could do for him. At last, the time had come for each member of the Royal Court to make their choice.
With a deep breath, the Captain of the Royal Guard turned around and left.
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