Eyes Wide Open

A/N: Just wanted to thank CirionEorl for inspiring this- it's based on a comment made on one of the earlier chapters of my other story, An Act of Desperation. But this should make sense if you haven't read that, hopefully.

Eyes Wide Open

It's good to be back, Éomer thought with relief as his company approached the heavy wooden gates of Edoras, though he still could not help feeling a little discouraged from the latest round of orc raids. He had heard the rumor just days before that another band had crossed the Anduin and was heading for a little-guarded settlement just west of the Entwash River. He had offered to lead his éored against them, but the king's strange unwillingness to take any immediate action had cost them precious time, and they had arrived too late.

"It's not your fault, you know." A voice broke into his thoughts, and he glanced over to see that Théodred had fallen back to ride evenly with him. He had met up with his cousin's company on the way home and the two had welcomed the rare chance to ride together.

"I know," Éomer said. "I just wish we had been able to get there sooner. If this keeps up...the villagers cannot defend themselves against a constant onslaught."

"Think no more on it tonight, cousin. It would be wise to enjoy the rest while we can," Théodred replied, clapping the younger man on the shoulder. Éomer's spirits did brighten at the thought of a hot meal and a real bed to sleep in that night, and the two men rode through the gates together, greeting the guards as they entered.

Éomer dismounted just before he reached the stable and led Firefoot to his stall. The chestnut stallion whickered in delight as Éomer filled the feedbag with some fresh grain before he carefully removed the tack and rubbed him down. He emerged from the stall as the same time as Théodred and fell into step beside him. "I still think it strange that they only take the black horses," Éomer said.

Théodred glanced over at his younger cousin. "As do I." Éomer started to reply, when he heard a thunk, followed by a string of muffled curses. Both Théodred and Éomer recognized the voice immediately. Théodred grinned. "Go ahead. I'll see you in the hall." Éomer nodded, and walked to the other side of the barn.

Sure enough, Éowyn was there in the deserted stable yard. Her back was to him as she practiced firing arrows into a bale of hay in a rather sloppy fashion; several arrows had missed the target and had become imbedded in the stable wall. He couldn't help smiling; his sister had always had this intense drive to prove that she could hold her own against any of the men in the art of fighting. Even he would admit she was almost his equal in wielding a sword, and she had learned to use the spear in a satisfactory manner. But the bow... she had never quite gotten the hang of it, and he knew it irritated her terribly. He could almost picture the determined gleam in her eyes as he watched. Her back was to him now, and he was able to quietly sneak behind her. He thought briefly about greeting her, but then looked at the wall and decided he wasn't ready to die quite yet. So he waited until just after she released the arrow. The arrow hit the hay bale this time, though it was not even touching the cloth target she had tacked to it. "You're pulling your elbow too far to the right," he said. "You need to pull straight back."

She was so startled that she dropped the bow, causing him to laugh. She whirled around, anger and frustration clouding her fair face. The storm clouds disappeared just as quickly.
"Éomer!" she cried out as she ran over and nearly knocked him over in a wild hug. Her eyes were shining as she smiled at him, and he suddenly realized with a shock that this was the first time he had really seen her smile in quite some time. Undoubtedly because of Uncle Théoden, he thought. Their uncle had fallen ill some time ago and the brunt of his care had fallen to Éowyn, now that he had been promoted to one of the Marshalls. He was still surprised to see the grave look in her eyes--so much older than a maiden who was just now in her twenty-second summer should look.

He pushed that thought aside for the time being as he returned her hug. "It's good to see you too, little sister," he laughed. "Although I see your aim still leaves something to be desired."

She playfully swatted him on the arm. "Very funny," she said, though she laughed. "When did you get back? I was looking for you all day, ever since I heard that your éored was approaching."

"Just a little while ago," he replied. "I came to find you as soon as I had taken care of Firefoot."

"What happened? Did you find them?"

Éomer sighed a little and ran his hand through his blonde hair in frustration. "No, not this time. We searched from the Entwash to the Anduin, but couldn't find those accursed orcs. Nor did we find any trace of the horses they stole."

Éowyn frowned. "Still only the black ones?"

Éomer nodded. "At this rate, not a dark horse will be left in Rohan. And I hate to think of what they do to the poor creatures."

Éowyn bowed her head in understanding, and for a short time neither spoke. Éomer finally broke the silence. "What of Uncle Théoden? Has he shown any sign of recovery?"

A look of bitter frustration rested on Éowyn's face. "Hardly. If anything, he grows worse as each day passes." Éomer glanced over and could see she was fighting tears as she looked up at him. "Sometimes it seems that he doesn't even recognize me anymore. It's just so...unnatural."

"Unnatural? What do you mean?" Éomer asked.

Her voice grew softer. "Do you not think it strange? It's been two years since he first fell ill, and in those two years the orc raids have multiplied. They grow bolder; it's almost as if they know the weakest place to strike and aim directly for it."

"Of course they would. Any military unit would do the same thing."

"Perhaps," she said, sounding unconvinced. "But is it not also strange that his illness appeared about the same time that Gríma became his advisor?"

Éomer's head jerked up. "Surely you're not suggesting that he has anything to do with it?"

A defiant light came in her eyes. "Maybe I am."

"It's just a coincidence, Éowyn. Don't blame him for something that's out of any man's control," Éomer said in an attempt to calm her down. Undoubtedly having to spend all her time looking after Théoden was wearing on her.

"How do you know?" she snapped. "You wouldn't see it, because you're never there. The things he says to the King... he's always telling him to wait to take any action, that he's too weak to do anything about what's happening... and then there's the messengers."

"What messengers?" Éomer asked.

She lowered her voice even further, and Éomer was surprised at the intensity in her eyes. "Every time you or Théodred go out to fight or someone sends a report of a new attack, he disappears for the morning. Several times I saw a horse leaving the gate soon after this, heading northwest. Then he always returns and acts as if nothing had happened. I wanted to know what he was up to, so I followed him one time."

"Éowyn!" he exclaimed, shocked that his sister would resort to eavesdropping.

"It was the only way!" she protested. "I don't know what the exchange was about, but I saw Gríma hand some sort of sealed letter to a man in a dark cloak. It looked like the man handed something to him as well, but I couldn't see what it was."

Éomer frowned as the implications of what she said struck home. "You're not saying he's a spy? That's a very serious charge."

"I don't know. All I know is that I don't trust him at all, Éomer." She looked up at him again, her grey eyes wide open. He was surprised to see a trace of fear in them.

"You're afraid of him." It was more of a statement than a question.

"No, I'm not!" she protested. Éomer just looked at her steadily. "Perhaps a little," she finally admitted, looking down as if she were ashamed. "I'm afraid to leave Uncle Théoden alone with him, but being left alone with the two of them is almost as bad. The way Gríma looks at me sometimes..." her voice trailed off.

A surge of anger flashed through Éomer. "What did he do?"

"Nothing," Éowyn said quickly. Éomer gave her a hard look, but knew his sister would not lie about such a thing. "Really, Éomer, he's never laid a hand on me. I'm just very uncomfortable around him. It's not just me--some of the men in the king's guard have taken to calling him Wormtongue behind his back. A fitting name, if you ask me," she added with a derisive snort.

Despite the increasing seriousness of the conversation, Éomer was unable to suppress a laugh. "Very ladylike of you, Éowyn," he teased, thinking it might be safer to change the subject. "You'll never find yourself a husband if you insist on sounding more like a horse than a lady of the court."

Éowyn quickly took up the challenge. "Not necessarily; I often hear the complaint that the men of this land spend more time with their horses than they do with their wives. And, my dear brother, I don't see you making any more of an effort to find yourself a wife," she said, raising an eyebrow.

"I couldn't possibly think of settling down now; someone's got to try to keep those filthy orcs from trampling our lands," Éomer replied.

"Nor could I; someone has to protect you from all those poor, disappointed noblewomen!" Éowyn retorted, mischief gleaming in her steel-grey eyes.

Éomer groaned, "Spare me! Come, sister, will you accompany me back to the hall?"

Éowyn hurried to gather her arrows, and the two fell silent until they reached the doors of Meduseld.

Háma, captain of the king's guard, greeted them at the door. "My lord, I am glad to see that you have returned," he said, bowing low.

Éomer laughed. "Come, Háma, there is no need for such formality!" Háma's face broke into a wide grin as the two friends clasped arms. "How is your wife? And your daughter?" Éomer asked.

"Both doing very well," Háma replied, pride in his voice. "How did the battle go?"

"We arrived too late," Éomer growled, still feeling frustrated.

"I see." Háma frowned. "The king's expecting you, Éomer. And be careful what you say," he cautioned, lowering his voice. Éomer must have looked confused, because Háma added, "There's something strange at work in there. I don't rightly know what it is... just be careful."

Éomer glanced down at Éowyn, who gave him a look that clearly said I told you so. The guards opened the doors, and the two of them entered. The hall seemed even gloomier than when he had left. The only illumination was the late afternoon light pouring in from high windows, highlighting every speck of dust that floated through its beams, and the hearth fire in the center of the floor. Éomer looked intently at his uncle; it seemed that he had aged further even in the short time that he had been gone.

"Lady Éowyn, why were you gone so long? The king was distressed to find you missing," a low voice hissed. Éomer's gaze jerked to the steps before the throne, where a dark-haired man dressed in black sat. Gríma.

"Forgive me, my lord," Éowyn said, curtsying to the king. "I lost track of time. It won't happen again." Éomer noted that her gaze never left Théoden as she spoke, as if she was ignoring Gríma altogether. He acknowledged her words with an almost imperceptible nod, and Éomer was surprised to see the relief on her face.

His uncle's eyes now turned to him. "Éomer." There was something strange in his gaze, Éomer mused, almost as if the king was looking through him instead of at him. Like I'm invisible, he thought.

Pushing his thoughts aside, he bowed. "My lord."

Gríma spoke again. "The king wishes to hear your report, Lord Éomer."

"We arrived too late, my lord. The orcs had already gone; they took several horses and killed about ten men. Many more in the village were wounded. None in my éored were lost, but we only arrived in time to assist in burying the dead." Éomer closed his eyes briefly as the horrendous sights that had met them as they rode up flashed before his mind--smoke rising from the charred remains of nearly every building in the village, the glassy-eyed stares of men whose bodies had been mutilated as they fell defending their homes...

It took him a moment to realize that Gríma was speaking again. "It's a pity you couldn't ride any faster."

Éomer felt a rush of anger surge through him. "We rode as fast as we could without killing our horses. Perhaps if we had been allowed to leave when we first heard of the trouble, we would have arrived in time to be of more help."

Gríma's eyes darkened. "You dare to question the king's judgment in this matter, Éomer?"

He could feel his sister's eyes on him, pleading with him not to say anything rash. He forced his temper down as much as he could, and turned to Théoden. "I do not question your judgment, my lord. I only ask that we be allowed to take quicker action the next time this happens."

"It is not wise to simply rush into battle, Éomer. Time is needed to determine the best course of action," Gríma said.

"And if one delays too long, the choice of what course to take is lost," Éomer retorted. For a moment, the two locked eyes in a fierce staredown.

It was the king who broke the tense silence. "Enough! We will deal with those decisions when the time comes. Éomer, you are obviously wearied from your journey. Go take your rest, and we will talk more of this matter tomorrow."

"As you wish, my lord," Éomer said before bowing and departing. He could feel Gríma's glare burning into his back with every step.

***

Night was falling over Edoras, and Éomer watched the ever-darkening sky from a window in the hall just around the corner from his family's quarters. It was all he could do to keep himself from pacing. He prided himself on being a man of action, and not knowing what to do irritated him. He couldn't help feeling a little bit of guilt as well; he had been so focused on destroying the orcs that threatened his people that he had never even considered the possibility that danger might come from within his own home as well.

He was a warrior, not a diplomat, and had always had a natural mistrust for those who used words as their weapons. It was too easy to twist words. So why is it that I didn't suspect anything sooner? The more he thought about it, the more he began to believe that his sister was right, and that somehow, Gríma did have some part in his uncle's illness. But he had no idea what to do about it.

He heard footsteps down the hall, and snapped back to attention. A door opened, and he heard Éowyn wish Théoden a good night. The door closed, and Éomer was just about to sink back into his own thoughts when he heard a second voice. His hands involuntarily clenched into fists.

"What a pity...it seems like such a waste for one so young and strong to have to spend all her time playing nursemaid to a dying old man," Gríma's oily voice said.

Éomer could almost see the anger flashing in Éowyn's eyes. "He is not dying!" she exclaimed. "And whatever it is you did to him...what you're trying to do to me, it won't work."

Silently, cautiously, he moved until he was able to see just around the corner. Gríma's back was to him. Éowyn's face wore the wild-eyed look of an animal that had gotten itself cornered and was desperately seeking a way out. Now Gríma spoke again: "My lady, how could you possibly think I did anything to the king? I have never been anything but a faithful servant."

"You're a lying snake," she retorted bitterly, and Éomer silently marveled that she alone had the courage to say what it seemed that everyone else in the court thought. "And I am not your lady. Now please, just go!"

Gríma's voice lowered to a more threatening growl. "I would be more careful about throwing such accusations around if I were you."

Éowyn opened her mouth to respond, but Éomer could no longer keep silent and stepped out from around the corner, his hand on the hilt of his sword. "My sister said to leave her alone, Gríma," he said.

A look of gratitude briefly flashed across Éowyn's face before settling once more into a defiant glare. Gríma turned to look at him, his eyes drifting to Éomer's sword, then he roughly pushed past Éowyn and left.

Éomer and Éowyn both looked down the hall and around the corner to make sure that he had truly gone. Only when she was satisfied that they were alone did Éowyn relax. "Thank you," she whispered, practically shaking in relief.

Éomer simply nodded, then put an arm around her shoulders. He opened the door to his room, pulled her inside, and looked back into the hall one last time before shutting the door. "I owe you an apology, Éowyn," he said quietly, turning to face his sister. "It seems you may be right about Gríma."

"So what can we do about it?" she asked.

"I don't know," Éomer replied, frustration welling up in him again. "I suppose for now all we can do is try to beat him at his own game. Treason is a serious charge, so we'll need a good deal of proof before we can say anything. I'll see what I can find out about what he's been up to--I know that Háma can be trusted, and he knows almost everything that happens around here."

"And what about me? What can I do?" Éowyn asked again.

Éomer frowned thoughtfully. "Try to keep him away from the king as much as you can. Make sure that Gríma is never left alone with him. And keep your eyes open for any suspicious behavior." A shadow crossed Éowyn's face, and Éomer realized that asking her to do that meant she'd also have to be around Gríma more. "I'll be watching him too, Éowyn, as often as I can be here. Théodred will too; he's never liked Gríma either."

"All right," Éowyn said reluctantly. "I suppose all we can do is watch, and wait." Her voice plainly showed that she did not like the idea at all.

"I suppose so," Éomer said, looking down at her. He put his hand on her shoulder and added, "I won't let him hurt you, Éowyn. I promise." She finally relaxed again, and Éomer silently vowed that he would keep his eyes wide open for any sign that his sister's safety was being threatened.

He could only hope it was a promise he'd be able to keep.

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