An Act of Desperation - Chapter 3- Eomer's Return
My anxiety grew the following day, and I spent hours pacing the high stone platform that the hall was built upon, looking for any sign of his return. Still no word came. Finally, as I watched the next morning, I heard the cry of one of the gatekeepers that riders were coming.
Immediately I ran to the stable, my cloak flying behind me in the wind. Within minutes my grey stallion, Windfola, was saddled and out of the stables. I mounted quickly and cantered down to the walls. The guards stood back as I flew through the gate and across the fields to where my brother and his company were approaching.
He looked weary, but otherwise fine, and he smiled warmly as he saw me though his eyes were thoughtful. As Windfola drew even with his steed, I wheeled the horse about so I was riding evenly with him. My eyes glanced back over the remainder of the éored; it looked a little smaller than usual, and one horse was being led riderless. "There was a battle then?" I asked.
He nodded. "I will tell you all, but not yet. I have heard much today which needs to be brought to the attention of the king."
I lowered my voice. "Be careful what you say; Wormtongue is dead-set against you. I fear he has been able to convince our uncle that you are guilty of treason, despite my attempts to persuade him otherwise."
"I know. But it is a risk I had to take. And well worth it, though we have paid much," he replied, looking back sadly.
"How many did you lose?"
"Fifteen men and twelve horses. But not a single orc was left alive."
I looked back again. "Twelve horses? Then there should be three horses returning, yet I only see one."
He nodded as we rode together through the gate. "I will explain everything as soon as I can." He then turned to his men and called out, "There is no need for all of you to accompany me to Meduseld; I ask only for Éothain to come. We have ridden far and hard today, and I know you are weary, as I am. Go home to your families; I will summon you again if need calls." There were exclamations of gratitude from the company, and the men quickly scattered. Éomer, his lieutenant Éothain and I continued back to the hall.
After turning the horses over to a stable boy to be taken care of, we entered the hall. Théoden was sitting on his throne, looking angrier than I had seen him in a long time. And yet, I thought with a little bit of guilt, it was almost a relief to see him with any expression at all. "Éomer, why did you disobey my orders and ride out?" he asked.
Wormtongue rose from the step below the dais where he always sat at the king's feet as I took my customary place by his side. "The king demands a full explanation at once, Éomer. And choose your words wisely," he said with a threatening glare.
Éomer's voice reflected the anger I felt at these words as he replied, "The king demands it? Or do you? It would be no surprise if I am already condemned in your mind, Gríma. Nevertheless, I will answer to the king, for it may do him good to know that there are still some who will fight for our lands instead of hide in the shadows and whisper words of apathy." Wormtongue scowled as Éomer continued. "We overtook a band of orcs by the edges of Fangorn the day before last. Fifteen men we lost, and twelve horses, for they were many. But none of the orcs remain to return to their masters."
"Masters?" Wormtongue asked, turning to Éothain with a question in his eyes.
"With your leave, captain," Éothain said to Éomer before turning to face the dais. "We piled the carcasses and burned them. As we worked, we noticed there were two groups of orcs gathered there. One group was taller and broader than those we have seen before, bearing the mark of a white hand." Saruman, I thought. "The others were smaller, bearing the red eye of the Dark Lands."
A murmur ran through the assembly. Never before had the hosts of Mordor penetrated so far into our lands. Théoden held up his hand and all fell quiet again as Wormtongue continued his interrogation. "Is that all you have to report?"
"I would think that would be enough," I said coldly. Éomer's troubled gaze briefly met mine, and I fell silent lest I further incited Wormtongue against him. There was a long silence, then the king asked, "Éomer?"
He paused for a moment as if trying to collect his thoughts. "This morning as we were returning, we came across three travelers, the likes of which I have never seen in these lands--an elf, a man and a dwarf, all clad in elvish fashion. We did not see them until we were almost upon them. They claimed they had pursued the orcs from the hill of Amon Hen to reclaim two of their companions who had been taken captive--Halflings, they said."
"Halflings? This is no time to be retelling old wives' tales, son of Éomund," Wormtongue mocked, though his eyes lit up in sudden interest.
Éomer's steel-grey eyes blazed in anger, and I could tell he was close to completely losing his temper with Wormtongue at last. He finally regained control of his features and continued. "The man claimed to be Isildur's heir. I have seen the Sword that was broken reforged. Also, he brought grim tidings. Boromir son of Denethor was a member of their company; he was slain just days ago by the very orcs we destroyed." My eyes widened. I remembered the man of Gondor a little; he had passed through Rohan months before on a strange mission to the Elven haven of Rivendell. The horse my uncle had lent him had returned riderless long before, but I had still hoped that some ill fortune had not befallen him. "Also, Gandalf the Grey traveled with them also; he fell in the mines of Moria."
"That news is not so grim." Wormtongue laughed, and the sound rang hollow in my ears. I did not hear what was spoken next; my mind was reeling, trying to take in all that I had just heard. My uncle had been furious when Gandalf had last visited and taken Shadowfax when offered the loan of a horse, and more so when Shadowfax returned wild. It was whispered among many that his coming was always on the wings of doom, but I had never believed that the old man meant any harm, and that he had died was hard news to hear. My thoughts snapped back to the present as I heard Éomer say that he had lent the travelers two of the spare horses under a promise that after learning as much as they could of the fate of their friends, the horses would be returned.
"And you believed them? Truly you are a greater fool than I thought, Éomer. Obviously they were spies and enemies of Rohan--why did you not bring them to the throne to be judged?" Wormtongue hissed.
Éomer's eyes flashed coldly. "I am not easily deceived, Gríma. And I am more troubled by treachery from within these city walls than from the distant plains."
For a moment, the two stood, eyes locked in a deadly staredown as Wormtongue's pale face flushed in anger. Wormtongue broke it first. "Guards!" he called as he turned to the king. "Éomer has broken your direct order, my lord. That alone is worthy of punishment. But to let these spies go unhindered--nay, to aid them--proves that he is a traitor. I advise that you put him somewhere where he can not cause any more harm to your land."
"No!" I cried out as some of the guards reluctantly stepped forward. I ran down and placed myself between them and my brother, then turned to the king. "My lord, Éomer has only done what he deemed best for our people. He has destroyed a great number of our enemies. Are these the marks of a traitor? I beg you, uncle, do not be swayed by Gríma in this matter!"
For a moment, my uncle hesitated, and I watched him intently, desperately hoping that maybe this time I had gotten through to him. I did not see Wormtongue approach me until his hand gripped my arm tightly. "Come, Lady Éowyn. Do not make things even harder for your brother."
Without thinking, I whirled around and slapped him as hard as I could. He staggered back, a crimson flush quickly springing up where my hand had struck his cheek. In the next instant, he was on the floor with Éomer pinning him down with his knee and drawing his sword. "You snake! Too long have you watched my sister; too long have you haunted her steps. If you ever so much as look at her again, I swear on my father's grave that this will be the last thing you see," he growled, pressing the naked blade against his throat. Two of the king's guards then dragged him off of Wormtongue and twisted his arms behind him until he was forced to drop his sword. I ran to my brother's side and pulled one of the guards off of him. He in turn pinned my arms behind me, holding me back as I lunged for the other.
"Enough!" Théoden called, leaning heavily on his cane as he rose shakily from his seat. " Háma!" The captain of the guard stepped forward. "Put him in prison."
Háma hesitated. "But... my lord?"
My uncle looked wearier than I had ever seen him. "I cannot allow him to threaten death in my hall," he slowly added.
Wormtongue had scrambled to his feet by this time. "Do it! Or you will also be locked up for your insolence!" he screamed.
Háma bowed slightly, and then came over to where my brother stood beside me. "Come, Éomer," he said, then added in a softer tone that only the three of us could hear, "I am sorry."
Éomer placed a hand on his arm. "I do not hold you responsible, my friend." His gaze grew cold as he glared at Gríma before allowing himself to be led out of the hall. The guard still held onto my arms to hold me back, and once again I could do nothing but watch helplessly as another one I loved was taken from me.
By the time I was able to go visit Éomer, twilight had already covered the sky and the first cold stars of evening glittered brightly above me. A low stone building behind the hall was where prisoners were kept while they awaited judgment from the king; Háma had told me this was where Éomer had been put.
The guard at the door greeted me kindly. "Good evening, Lady Éowyn. I assume you're here to see your brother?"
"Yes. May I go in?" I asked.
"In a minute. I just need to check what you're bringing in," he replied, motioning to the bundle I carried. "Wormtongue's orders," he added in a lowered voice.
"Of course," I answered dryly as I unrolled the bundle to reveal nothing more than a blanket and some food. He nodded and stepped aside.
My feet echoed softly on the stone floor as I entered. Another guard handed me a torch and motioned to the stairs that led to the lower level of the prison. I thanked him and slowly made my way down the dampened stairs, being careful not to stumble. The flame from the torch flickered, causing my shadow to stretch and dance against the wall. As I reached the bottom step, I saw rows of thick wooden doors in the stone wall, each with a hinged door at the bottom just large enough to pass food through, and a small window higher up crossed with iron bars. "Éomer?" I called out softly, setting the torch in a small metal loop attached to the wall.
"Second door on the left," he answered, his voice muffled through the thick walls. I quickly went to the door he had mentioned and looked through the window. He sat on a low bench against the wall in just a shirt and breeches; they had taken his armor. The only other object in the cell was a small bed against the opposite wall. He stood and walked over to the window.
"I suppose I shouldn't have lost my temper like that," he said remorsefully. "He didn't hurt you, did he?"
"No, I'm fine," I answered. "Truthfully, I think he would have had you locked away even if you hadn't attacked him. You're the greatest threat to him, you know--the only other person Uncle Théoden might listen to."
"And what about you?"
I glanced down. "He doesn't listen to me either. I spent the entire afternoon trying to convince him to let you go, but it was useless. As long as that accursed Wormtongue is around, it's like he doesn't hear anything else, and he took special pains to ensure I wouldn't be left alone with the king this day."
"As long as you're not left alone with Gríma. I don't trust him any further than I could catapult him."
I could not help laughing as an image of Wormtongue flying over the fields of Rohan and out of sight crossed my mind. "'Tis a pity that will not happen--it would be a pleasant sight!"
Éomer laughed as well. "That it would."
I suddenly remembered the bundle in my arms. "Oh! I almost forgot- I brought you this." I bent down to the small hinged section of the door, lifted the latch and pushed the blanket through. He carefully unrolled it to find the small basket of food that I had brought him and smiled. "It was the best that I could do...I didn't have much time," I added apologetically.
"There's no need to apologize, it all looks wonderful. And thank you for the blanket too, I'm sure it will be useful tonight."
I forced a small smile, though I was grieved at the thought of my brother spending the night alone in that cold cell. "Would you like me to stay for awhile, or should I leave you in peace to eat?"
He sat down on the bench and set the basket beside him. "Stay, please, so we can talk more."
I did stay, and we talked long into the night, mostly remembering happier times that had long since passed. Finally the torch began to burn low, and my brother glanced in the direction of the fading light reluctantly. "You should go back soon."
"I know. I'll return tomorrow. And I will try again to get our uncle to release you," I promised.
He nodded. "Good night, Éowyn."
I said good night to him, and clasped his hand briefly through the bars before taking what remained of the torch and going back up the stairs. I returned the torch to one of the guards, then stepped out into the night and breathed deeply. The cold air filled my lungs, leaving a slight chill even as I exhaled, and I wrapped my cloak around me tightly as I quickly walked back to the hall. A thick blanket of cloud had blocked the starlight, leaving the sky in murky, impenetrable darkness. A fitting sight, I thought grimly as I walked, feeling more dejected with each step I took. With Éomer in prison, there truly would be no one left to fight for us. My mind recalled the words the messenger had said a few days before--unless aid came unlooked for, we were doomed to fall. But I could not hope for such help to come--hope had long since forsaken us.
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