An Act of Desperation - Chapter 4- The White Wizard
I was unable to speak privately to my uncle until late in the morning. By some miracle Gríma had left the room, undoubtedly to stir up some more trouble for Éomer. I cautiously approached Théoden and knelt next to his throne. "My lord?"
After a long moment, he turned his head towards me. I decided to go straight to the heart of the matter while it seemed he might hear. "Uncle, I beg you to please reconsider your judgment against Éomer." I paused, but he did not answer so I continued, "He is loyal to you, my lord, no matter what Gríma might say against him."
"That is a lie," I heard a cold voice say, and closed my eyes as what little hope I had crumbled. He just had to come back now. "Unless loyalty now comes in the form of disobedience."
I stood up and turned to face him. "It is better to disobey and fight to help our people than to mask a heart full of cowardice under flowery words and unwise counsel," I said, defiance marking every syllable. His eyes narrowed maliciously, but I gave him no chance to reply and walked away instead. I did not want to trouble my uncle by making him listen to yet another argument, nor was I in a mood to withstand Gríma's presence long enough to hold such a discussion.
I left the main hall and closed the door behind me in one of the side hallways, staring blankly out the window. The sky was still overcast and I could see no sign of any break in the thick grey blanket above. This is hopeless! I thought angrily. How could I possibly make my uncle see reason if I could not even speak to him? Everyone else in the court, even the many who sympathized with my brother, would not dare to dispute the king's verdict. I felt the heavy weight of Éomer's fate resting on my shoulders, even more so because I was powerless to change a thing.
I was so lost in desperately trying to come up with something, anything that would get Wormtongue away long enough for me to speak to my uncle again that I did not hear the footsteps approaching behind me. Suddenly I felt the coolness of a steel dagger press against my throat. In the same instant, a hand clamped tightly over my mouth and nose, muffling my scream and nearly cutting off my air.
My heart began to pound as I tried to force down the fear rising in me so I could keep my wits about me. I struggled wildly to get away, and finally managed to elbow my attacker hard in the stomach. I heard a soft groan as the wind was knocked out of him at the same time that I felt a light stinging sensation on the side of my neck. I reached up my hand and was surprised to find blood on my fingers. This distracted me just long enough that the next thing I knew, I had been forced into a corner with the dagger pressed against my throat once more. Gríma leered at me as he moved in closer, leaning against me to keep me from escaping as he cut off my cry for help with his hand once again. I bit down hard and he jerked his hand away, dropping the dagger and cursing as I spat at his feet in an attempt to get the vile taste out of my mouth.
He slapped me hard enough to knock my head backwards into the wall, causing stars to dance before my eyes. "Now will you just be quiet?" he sneered, clamping a hand around my throat. I nodded, too stunned to do anything other than play along until I could find a chance to escape.
He watched me for a moment until he was satisfied that I would not struggle. "Now that's more like it." His eyes flickered with fire and a leering smile was on his face. "You know the king is not going to listen to you, Éowyn. Just accept that."
"I'm not going to abandon my brother to an unjust imprisonment," I replied, loathing him even more with every second that passed.
He stepped a little closer, and I could feel his breath on my neck. Then without warning, he pushed me even harder against the wall and pressed his foul lips roughly against mine. His kiss felt cold and slimy, and I involuntarily shuddered as he forced his tongue past my lips. One hand wrapped around my waist and pulled me closer, forcing my body against his while the other gripped my throat tighter. For a long second, I was paralyzed with shock, as a fly caught in a web when the spider's poisonous bite first touches it. Then, I quickly jerked my knee up as hard as I could. I couldn't help feeling a grim satisfaction as he released my throat and fell back, doubled over in pain. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand in revulsion as I ran for the door. He quickly scrambled over and barred my exit.
"What do you want from me? Will you not let me go?" I cried in panic.
I could see the hand that had tried to choke me stained with my own blood. His face was still twisted in a grimace of pain as he said, "I want only your assurance that you will not tell anyone of my little....indiscretion, my lady." He looked anything but remorseful.
"Of course I will! You have no right or claim to me, and I refuse to consent to this sort of violation," I spat even as I looked for another escape route.
"Have it your way, my lady. But you may want to consider the cost of your actions if you speak against me."
I stepped back, a cold feeling of dread settling in my stomach. "What do you mean, the cost of my actions?"
"I mean," he replied, a wicked smile on his pale face, "if you breathe a word of this to anyone, I will ensure that your brother is executed for treason before nightfall."
I stepped back again as I felt the color drain from my face. "You can't do that," I answered, trying to sound confident, but the doubts arose even as I spoke the words.
He knew this, and having found my weakness he went for the kill. "I can't? Go ahead, tell your uncle. What do you think he'll believe--the solemn word of his most trusted advisor, or the slanderous delusions of a grief-stricken maiden?"
I was speechless, yet I knew he was right. My uncle would not listen to me. My silence was the only way I could help my brother. With this knowledge, a dark wave of despair washed over me. Seeing that I was defeated, he stepped aside at last and I fled the hall.
My first thought was to go to Éomer. But no, that would do no good. He would lose his temper completely and kill Wormtongue the moment he was released, if he was indeed released at all. And if he was not, the knowledge of this and being able to do nothing would eat at him and make his captivity all the more painful. I could not go to my uncle. I did the only other thing I had the presence of mind to do--I pushed the doors open and ran out onto the stone platform, pacing and clenching my fists to try to suppress my humiliation and disgust.
He won't make me cry, he won't, I told myself sternly as I forced back the tears as best as I could, though a few still spilled out and ran slowly down my cheeks, drying quickly in the wind. My light golden hair was whipped about me and into my face, but I did not bother to push it away. My breath came in gasps as I fought to regain control of myself--I could not go back into the hall like this, or everyone would know something had happened and raise questions I could not afford to answer. I took a few deep breaths as I looked out over the walls and onto the fields beyond. That was when I first saw them.
Three horses approached swiftly. Though I could not see the riders from where I stood, one of the horses seemed to move quicker than the others, and his white coat glowed in the sunlight. Even from a distance, the horse's proud gait reminded me of Shadowfax. But that could not be--he would bear no one. As I stood there and watched, I heard a tearing sound and saw the green flag that usually flew proudly above me floating away in the wind and over the gate to where the riders approached, and my heart sank further at this omen. I bowed my head, only to catch a glimpse of my blood-stained fingers. My hand flew to my neck, which was still bleeding a little from the shallow cut.
I turned and rushed back into the building and down the hall to my room. I held a kerchief to my neck until the bleeding stopped. Then pushing my hair back over my shoulders, I poured water from a pitcher into a shallow basin next to my bed with trembling hands. I quickly cleaned the blood from around the wound, then violently scrubbed my face to rid it of all traces of Wormtongue's defilement, wishing I could wash away the memory just as easily. Then as the water stilled, I used it to study my reflection. My face looked pale, but I noted with a bit of relief that I did not appear to have been crying. My hand drifted down to my neck. A thin reddish line was visible on the side of my neck but amazingly, I had no blood on my dress. I experimentally pulled some of my hair over my shoulder, then looked at it from the side. It hid the cut well enough, I decided. Any other means of hiding it would draw too much attention.
I glanced down at my white dress, smoothing the skirt, then twisting my head to look at the back to see if the wall had dirtied it when Wormtongue pushed me against it. It hadn't, at least not where I could see it. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to prepare myself mentally since I knew he'd be in there too. My eyes opened and searched the room, resting on a small dagger. I had gotten into the habit of carrying it with me, but had forgotten that day in my rush to talk to Théoden about Éomer--Of course this would be the day I needed it, I thought ruefully. I strapped it to my lower arm, hidden under my sleeve but ready to pull it out in a moment if necessary. Finally, when I believed I had sufficiently calmed myself, I opened the door and approached the great room. My duty was to stand at the king's side when visitors came, and I reasoned that if I entered from the side, I could probably make it in time to slip into my place with relatively little interruption.
I was too late. My pace quickened as I heard voices shouting from within. I pushed the door open and saw, to my horror, an old man robed in dazzling white, his staff outstretched towards the throne. My uncle sat there writhing in agony, but unable to move as if some unseen power held him there.
My first thought was that Saruman had come and was casting some sort of spell on the king. I ran forward with a strangled cry, unsure whether to go to my uncle or to attack the wizard first. I was suddenly jerked back as I felt a hand firmly grasp first one arm, then the other. "Wait," an unfamiliar voice whispered urgently. I glanced back just enough to see a dark-haired stranger, whose face was grim but not unkind. Then I noticed that Wormtongue lay upon the floor, kept there by a short, heavily armored figure brandishing an axe in a menacing fashion.
My attention returned to the throne. "If I go, Théoden dies," my uncle hissed in a voice not his own.
I did not have time to wonder about this as the white-robed man replied firmly, "You did not kill me; you will not kill him."
"Rohan is mine!" the king growled, rising from his chair.
"Be gone!" The wizard pointed the staff directly at my uncle, who was thrown back with a groan. I struggled wildly for a moment as he slumped forward, unable to hold myself back any longer, and rushed forward the instant I was released.
I fell to my knees beside him just in time to break his fall as his weight leaned heavily into me. He did not move and for a long, terrible moment, I thought that he had died. Then his head lifted, and he looked around wildly as the color seemed to come back to his face and hair, and the lines upon his face receded. Finally his eyes rested on me with a gaze clearer than I had seen in a long time except in my memory, and lit up with sudden recognition.
"I know your face," he whispered in wonder. I smiled, tears of joy stinging my eyes as he said, "Éowyn?" I nodded, unable to speak from the thickness in my throat; I could not even remember the last time he had said my name. He smiled now and repeated, "Éowyn." His hand lifted up and gently touched my face as if trying to assure himself that I was really there, and I took his hand in my own and squeezed it gently.
As I helped the king to his feet, I glanced back at the white-robed stranger, wondering how this change could have possibly come about. The face looked strangely familiar, and I realized with a sudden shock that it was Gandalf, though he had changed. His hair was now as white as his garments, and glimmered in the dim light from the high windows and the hearth. He looked more distant, more powerful than I last remembered, but he smiled kindly now as he looked upon Théoden.
"Dark have been my dreams of late," my uncle said, sounding as one who had just awoken from a long sleep. We stepped forward, my uncle still leaning a bit on my arm.
"Breathe the free air again, my friend," Gandalf said with a smile as he led us to the doors. The guards gladly opened them and we stepped outside, followed by the wizard's companions. He then asked for the guards to be sent to the foot of the stairs, then turned to me. "And you, lady, leave him a while with me. I will care for him."
My uncle looked at me steadily, looking hesitant to have me leave so soon. "Go, Éowyn sister-daughter," he finally said. "The time for fear is past."
I nodded reluctantly and turned to go back inside. As I did, I looked back at the three travelers who had come with the wizard, since I could now see them clearly. The first was a good deal shorter than I, though strong looking, with a thick reddish brown beard. The second was fair-haired, beardless and tall with gently pointed ears, and a light was in his clear blue eyes as he watched Gandalf and my uncle. I looked in amazement for a moment, for I had never seen an elf or a dwarf before. Then my eyes drifted to the third.
I recognized him instantly as the one who had prevented me from running to my uncle. He was tall, though not much more so than my brother. He appeared to be a good deal older than I, as if toil and care had aged him untimely; the dark hair that spilled over his shoulders was lightly frosted with silver in some places. His eyes were a deep grey, the color of the sky just before a storm. He had the look of one who was used to travel and battle, yet there was an air of majesty about him that I could clearly sense, unlike anything I had ever seen in the men of Rohan. Then for an instant, his eyes met mine with a level gaze and I was unable to move. I could feel my pulse quicken as my mind filled with questions--who was he? Where was he from? I suddenly realized I was staring, and my face grew hot as I quickly turned and walked back into the hall.
I stood there for a moment in the shadows of the entrance as my eyes adjusted to the dimness and tried to make sense of what had just happened. I had been around mostly men my entire life--growing up my playmates were my brother and the other boys training to be warriors, and now as a woman I spent my days with the men who were part of the king's court. But I had never cared what any man thought of me, until now. I wanted to run back and find out if he had felt the same way, but my head reminded me with infuriating calm that my first responsibility was to tell my brother of what had happened. I hurried down the hall and out of a side door.
The prison was just ahead, and I ran inside and down the stairs before any of the guards could stop me. "Éomer!" I called out breathlessly as I stopped before his cell. He lay on the low bed, seemingly asleep. "Éomer, wake up!" I shouted, a little louder this time.
He opened one eye and groaned a little. "Éowyn? What time is it?" he asked groggily.
"It's late in the morning, but that doesn't matter right now," I answered. "Éomer, you were wrong. Gandalf's not dead, he's here right now, and our uncle's well again, and..."
He jumped up and hurried to the door, suddenly wide-awake. "What? Slow down a little. What is this about Gandalf and Uncle Théoden?"
I quickly tried to compose my thoughts. "A little while ago, Gandalf came with three other travelers."
"What kind of travelers?" he asked, a light jumping into his eyes.
"Strange ones, the like of which I have never seen. One appeared to be a dwarf, the other two a man and an elf."
I was surprised to hear Éomer laugh. "I knew he would keep his word!" he said, his face looking more hopeful than I had seen in a long time.
"You know them?" I asked.
"Yes- the very same I met on the way home a few days ago. The dwarf is Gimli son of Gloin of the Lonely Mountain; the elf, Legolas son of Thranduil of Mirkwood; and the man is Aragorn son of Arathorn, heir to the throne of Gondor."
Aragorn. I repeated the name silently to myself, matching it to the face that had engraved itself upon my mind. So he was a king after all--I wasn't surprised; he looked every bit the part to me, though he was not dressed as one who would claim the high throne of Gondor. A smile crept over my face, then vanished as Éomer pulled me back to the present. "Éowyn, what about the king?"
After a brief moment, I realized he was referring to our uncle and quickly told him of what had happened between the wizard and Théoden, and how the years had suddenly fallen off of him. "He remembered me, Éomer," I said in wonder. "All this time I thought he had forgotten who I was, but he recognized me as soon as he saw me. I'll go back and talk to him about this as soon as I can, I just had to come tell you first. I'm sure he'll release you now!"
I heard the sound of feet rushing down the stone steps as if answering my statement. For a moment my breath caught in my throat, fearing that Wormtongue had come to cause trouble even now. I sighed in relief to see that it was Háma, carrying a ring of keys in his hand. He nodded in my direction, smiling as he called out, "My lord, I've come to release you. King's orders."
Éomer flashed me a triumphant grin as he answered, "Give the keys to my sister, Háma, and if you could get my sword, I'd greatly appreciate it." Háma bowed his head and handed the keys over to me, then left the room. I fumbled with the keys in my excitement and had to try several different ones before I found the right one, but once I did the lock turned easily and the door swung open. Éomer hurried out and clasped my arm in a warrior's greeting, then ran up the stairs. I followed as quickly as I could, holding my skirt out of the way to avoid tripping.
Háma was waiting at the top with Éomer's sword belt. He quickly strapped it on as I handed the keys back to the guard. "Thank you," I said quietly, and the guard nodded. Then the three of us left the prison.
As we reached the steps, I saw our uncle sitting heavily in his chair fighting with despair once more. "Alas that these evil days should be mine," he lamented. "The young perish and the old linger, withering." My heart sank again to see the agony on his face.
"Your fingers would remember their old strength better, if they grasped a sword-hilt," Gandalf replied. Our uncle stood up again and reached to his side, then glanced around and muttered to himself as if looking for something. I could not even remember the last time I saw him with his sword-belt.
Éomer silently drew his sword and walked up the stairs with Háma at his side. I followed a few steps behind. "Take this, dear lord!" my brother called out, and knelt with the hilt towards the king as he added, just loud enough for those of us nearby to hear, "It was ever at your service."
Théoden stood up straight, and I could not tell if he was shocked, angry or both. "How comes this?" he asked.
Háma bowed quickly. "It was my doing, lord," he said, sounding extremely nervous. "I understood that Éomer was to be set free. Such joy was in my heart that maybe I have erred. Yet, since he was free again, and he a Marshal of the Mark, I brought him his sword as he bade me."
"To lay at your feet, my lord," Éomer quickly added. Then my brother and uncle looked at each other for a long moment, unmoving. I could feel the tension passing between them from where I stood, and a familiar feeling of dread crept up on me again--what if Éomer was sent back to the prison, or worse?
Gandalf finally broke the silence. "Will you not take the sword?" he asked softly. At that moment, Éomer and our uncle seemed to finally reach some kind of an understanding, an he reached out and grasped the blade. It seemed to me that his strength fully returned at that moment; he swung the sword around and lifted it into the air with a cry, the blade flashing in the sunlight that had suddenly emerged. As he called the Riders to arms, my vision blurred with tears once more, this time for joy. I looked around as I knelt with those of my people gathered there, and my gaze drifted once again to Aragorn as he knelt with the rest of us in homage to Théoden. And in that moment, I truly believed that maybe there was still hope for us--for me.