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A/N: Many thanks to Ellynn, my word wrangler who patiently unwinds unwieldy meanings! ((hugs))
Chapter 14 – Storm Clouds Gather
Théodred stepped aside reluctantly. The hall became silent as the two old men took the other man’s measure. Éowyn observed Gandalf as he tried to rein in his temper breathing deeply as Théoden eyed him. She then shifted her gaze to her uncle. He seemed to be in the present moment, not the distracted shell of his former self that he so often was. A movement to his right caught her eye. It was Grima flicking his wrist reflexively to free his hand from his overly large sleeves as he placed a hand on the Golden Throne.
“Well, Gandalf Stormcrow. We are waiting for your great words of import,” he said with a slight tenor of derision. “What is it that you wish say now that you have our attention?”
Éowyn heard titters from the collected audience. She looked in the direction from which the closest sound came and saw it was Lady Maerlith, who stood in what Éowyn knew was her third best gown, daring to look at Gandalf with derisive amusement. Éowyn’s stomach roiled with indignant anger. She looked at Grima and saw that he was actually enjoying the shallow humour he had engaged in. The pain in the pit of her stomach grew.
Gandalf did not even deign to acknowledge that Grima had spoken. He stood his ground resolutely and announced in a loud, clear voice, “Saruman, once friend to Rohan, has betrayed you and plans for war on Rohan.”
Théoden’s eyes flashed. “Nonsense! I have it from Grima that Saruman seeks nothing but good for Rohan, as ever he has done.”
Éowyn saw Gandalf’s eyes flick to Grima and, following his eyes, she spied a look of haughty self-assurance on the pale noisome face of her uncle’s chief councilor.
Gandalf stated in a matter-of-fact voice looking straight at Grima, “Then Grima is a fool, or in league with Saruman.”
“Enough!” Théoden raged in a voice reminiscent of his former self. “Gandalf Stormcrow! State whatever ‘evidence’ you may have for such slanderous statements and then begone from my lands, else I will clap you in irons and leave you to the crows who share your name!”
Éowyn gasped at such a threat.
Gandalf stared icily at his former friend and stated formally that which he had told Théodred only moments before this disastrous audience, “I have only my word and the fact of what Saruman has done to me. He has held me prisoner and only by sheer good fortune have I made my escape.” Now he flashed temper. “I came here for aid. And found only wisdom parroting idiocy!” Gandalf looked scathingly from Théoden to Grima as he pronounced the word “idiocy”.
“I wish you to leave! Stormcrow! Fly with the speed of all our horses.” Théoden then seemed to leash in his temper and looked upon Gandalf with only a residual glint of temper in his eyes. “But never let it be said I am ungracious to those who anger me. Choose from my stable a horse suitable to your ‘needs’. This is the aid I will grant you, unnecessary though it is. Small cost to be rid of such nonsense. Guards! Let Greyhame pass so we will hear of his foolishness no more!”
Gandalf looked at Théoden, shaking his head. “I take my leave as you have taken yours. Farewell, Théoden, Son of Thengel. I have warned you and now that service discharged I have only to wish you well.”
Éowyn expelled a breath she had not known she had been holding. Gandalf seemingly heard the small sound amid silence, and he turned grey eyes of such sorrow upon her that they seared her soul. He then gave a small nod and swept from the room. Éowyn watched him go, staring after him and wanting to know what lay behind that sorrow. But in her heart, she already knew. A soft thwump beside her broke into her thoughts. She looked to the throne. Her uncle slumped back onto it. The expended emotion and vigor attendant upon the previous few minutes had taken a heavy toll on Théoden’s energy and his face looked ashen grey as he could barely hold his head erect.
Théodred, standing next to the throne, also saw his father slump and immediately took control of the situation, as heir to his father’s throne, and stepped forward addressing the gathered many for Audience Day.
“My Lords, Ladies and gentlefolk. This will conclude Audience Day for today. Those who have not yet had audience please may you leave your names with my Lord Steward, and I will see that issues are made right.”
There was a general concerned mumble to the assemblage, but all respected the word of Prince Théodred, and those with audiences unheard began to find their way to the Lord Steward to do as the Crown Prince had instructed. Éowyn had begun tending her uncle in his need and caught a glimpse of hatred on Grima’s face as he watched Théodred speak to the crowd. The pain in her stomach intensified, now only to be joined by a pain in her heart as she recalled the look in Gandalf’s eyes before he swept from the hall. She swallowed it all, burying it beneath the mountainous duty she owed to her now-ashen faced and clearly exhausted uncle.
As the Audience gathering was dispersing for the day and the names for those still in need were being amassed, Éowyn helped her uncle to his bedchamber to settle him in after his exertions. This duty performed, she then sought out her cousin. She found Théodred standing on the stone steps at the front entrance to Meduseld, looking out over Edoras and the plains beyond the walls of the city. She could sense the many emotions running through him from the tense, erect way he held his body. The pain and the frustration were palpable.
"Cousin?" she said softly.
Eyes of frustration and sadness were turned upon her as Théodred shook his head. "I can do nothing. I know in my heart that Gandalf's words of warning are true. Our people are in grave danger, and yet Father will not hear me! Always he listens to Grima!" His voice rose in frustration as he cast his eyes to the distant shouldering mountains. Éowyn watched as he fought an internal battle between royal restraint of emotion with the eyes of his people on him, and the genuine emotion and frustration he felt watching his father slowly decline. Gradually, as Éowyn knew he would, Théodred mastered his emotions. Only then did she step closer and reach out to touch his hand in comfort and understanding. His hand closed around hers as he leaned over and kissed the top of her head.
"What else can we do?" Éowyn murmured quietly, dropping her voice so that only Théodred could hear her.
"Send for Éomer."
"Beyond that?" Éowyn asked, knowing there was no certainty, no path beyond that decision that either could see.
"I do not know, cousin." Théodred looked to the sky as if searching the blue above for an answer. "I do not know."
Unseen by either, Grima retreated from a recessed alcove near the entrance and stole away back into the relative darkness of the hall.
A few days after the disastrous audience with Gandalf, Théoden was at first querulous which then had lapsed into listlessness, and he had kept to his bedchamber. Éowyn spent much of the first day with him trying to soothe his nerves and bring him back to some semblance of himself able to receive visitors and continue his duties of state. The next morning she was sitting by his side reading, when he suddenly awoke from slumber shouting, “Elfhild!” His eyes were wild with grief as if it were freshly minted. Tears came to Éowyn’s eyes. It was the name of her aunt, who had died in giving birth to Théodred.
“Shh-shh! Uncle. I am here! It was all just a bad dream,” she spoke soothingly.
Théoden looked at her, wild eyes not quite recognizing her at first. Éowyn briefly wondered if it were Elfhild he saw in those first few moments. His eyes cleared, though remembered pain was still present. “Éowyn?” he whispered, a question hanging in his voice, confirming her thoughts of her aunt.
“Yes, uncle. It is me. It was only a bad dream. Please go back to sleep and try to get some rest.” She smoothed his brow and placed a kiss on his forehead.
“Play for me so that I can return to sleep,” her uncle softly requested.
“Of course.” She got up from the side of his bed and sat behind her harp which had taken up residence in Théoden’s bedchambers, so often did she play for him. She lowered the harp rest onto her shoulder and began to pluck the strings in a calm and sweet lullaby her mother used to sing to her as a child. Théoden watched her playing at first, but slowly his eyes closed and soon he was breathing the even breathes of a deep, hopefully dreamless slumber. She watched him sleep as grateful tears gathered in her eyes. Her harp music seemed to give him joy and she was happy she was able to give this gift to him. She played the last strains of the piece and allowed the strings to reverberate, gently diminishing on their own.
She felt her heart would break looking at her uncle slumbering peacefully. For a moment or two she allowed the sorrow of the situation settle over her. The frustration, the unfairness of what was being done to him. The utter helplessness she felt in the reality of Grima’s influence. But she shook herself out the melancholy that threatened to take hold. She straightened her shoulders and stuffed the negative emotions back into a corner of her heart where she could safely ignore them for a while longer until life once again let them loose. It was the battle that she fought every day. But she would prevail. Her uncle and her cousin needed her strength. She had no time for weakness. Quietly she moved the padded rest from her shoulder and returned the harp to its resting position, and quietly left the chamber.
Whatever her destination had been, it was not where her feet had taken her. She realised she was on the path that led to the stables. She smiled thinking that her feet more than her head knew what she needed.
“Gamhelm!” she called out and waited for the booming voice of the master stableman to reply as she walked into the stables. She did not have long to wait.
“My lady!” the burly stablemaster called out, delight evident in his voice as he emerged from the tack room. He took one look at her face and said gently, “How fares the King?”
Éowyn took one look at the kindly face and all defenses she had built up over the last few days simply crumbled as she ran into the older man’s gentle and accepting embrace. She sobbed uncontrollably for a few minutes and had not even noticed that Gamhelm had picked her up and carried her inside and away from onlookers. The stablemaster simply held her and allowed the tears to flow unabated as he stroked her hair and murmured soothing sounds much like the ones he would use to calm a frightened and skittish horse. Soon Éowyn’s tears abated long enough for her to gasp out a few explanatory words, both necessary and unnecessary, all muddled together in the moment. “Oh Gamhelm!” Éowyn stumbled out at last. “I hate seeing him like this!” She sniffed.
Gamhelm looked at the sobbing face of the woman he had come to regard almost as his own daughter and saw a young girl with a smudge across her nose and hair falling loose from her braid, crying because the other girls ignored or teased her once too many times. A fair few times she appeared in his stable after tussling with one of the girls after one insult too many and she did not want Guthhild seeing a torn pinafore or dirt in her hair. He would try and tidy her up as best he could before sending her on her way back to her nurse. And when she was training in secret and had sore muscles and bruises for which she could not go the master healer lest questions were raised as to how she came by such injuries. He would then tend to her bruises with the salve he used on the horses and would give her advice on what to do for sore muscles. He sighed, realizing that there was no amount of “tidying up”, no salve that could soothe Éowyn’s tears this time. His heart broke as he realized there was little he could do to be real use to her.
“Oh my lady,” he said gently wiping away her tears with the clean, rough cloth he gone into the tack room to retrieve for the polishing of Prince Théodred’s saddle. “Just being there with him helps him a great deal. This I know.” He did not really know such a thing for sure, but he was sure of the affection and care Théoden had always shown for his niece and nephew. He paused to try and gather something other than words of empty comfort. He was always honest with both Éomer and Éowyn. Too many people at court offered what they thought the two wanted to hear, but Gamhelm, while in the proximity of the court, was not of the court and tried to give honest counsel.
“It is a hard thing, my lady, to be in your position. To see the things you see. To know the things that you know. And yet I know your strength, my lady, and your heart. And you are more than equal to this moment. Though it is hard to see the one you love dwindle through undue influence,” the older man admitted.
He knew of Grima, and by Éowyn’s word, knew of the effect Grima was having upon the King. It had been too long since the King had come to the stables to ride, which in and of itself was noticeable. King Théoden was a fine horseman with a true feel for his mount and saddle. A man’s character can always be determined by how he sits a horse, Gamhelm mused silently. The horse Grima always chose to ride inevitably came back scarred emotionally, if not physically as well. Skittish and spooked, Herefara always came back sweaty and showing signs of ill treatment. It took the stable boys three times as long to settle him back into his stall after a ride. As such Gamhelm had a very dim view of the pale, noisome man. He could not be trusted. And Lady Éowyn was in daily contact with him. He pursed his lips together and said firmly, “You will bear up under this, my lady. I know your spirit. You may not always know your spirit, my lady. But I do. There’s not a stronger, more caring heart than yours. Now smile for me. Lie to me and tell me you feel better!”
A genuine smile appeared through Éowyn’s tears. “Oh Gamhelm!” She squeezed her arms around his neck. “I love you!”
“And I love you, too, my lady!” he voiced the sentiment that could be spoken only in private company. A few at court would not approve of the stablemaster saying such a thing to the niece of the King. He looked into her blue eyes and saw the sadness receding, at least for the moment. Placing her on her booted feet, he said gruffly, “Now be off with you! I have work that needs doing!”
Éowyn stood, unfazed by his accustomed gruffness. “Thank you, Gamhelm!” she said solemnly. And pulled him down a little to place a kiss on his whiskered face. “I do feel better.”
Gamhelm smiled. “Now be off with you!”
Éowyn left stable in search of Théodred in a much more confident gait than he had seen her use in a while. He watched her from the stable door as she entered Meduseld proper. He spoke truly. She was strong of heart, but these were troubled times in Edoras. As stablemaster, he heard things. And what he heard gave him much disquiet. A thunderclap interrupted his musings. He cast an eye to the skies. They were darkening and promised rain soon.
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