The Hall of Theoden King stood high on a hill, for kings like to take the long view. Behind his throne there was a bannered wall. Behind the wall was a hidden closet. From inside it one could see nothing, but one could hear many interesting things.
Everyone has a special place that makes them feel at ease. Gríma’s was the closet; so close to the throne – within earshot and yet out of sight. He came there even when the king’s hall was empty, as it was now. He did his best thinking there, and today’s problem demanded his best. In fact Grima thought that how he dealt with the matter of the parchment would determine his future.
He inspected the parchment. It purported to request Prince Théodred to visit Dol Amroth’s steward at Erech-on-Morthond. The amiable steward would have been surprised, though. Neither he nor anyone else in Gondor had issued the invitation.
The metal seal with its device of Dol Amroth was authentic down to the nicks. The message itself spoke with just the right tone of deference and urgency. No prince of Rohan would be able to resist advising Imrahil’s steward on the bloodlines of the fiefdom’s horses.
And if Théodred does resist , thought Gríma, well … Théoden becomes more malleable and confused each day. Doesn’t he, my dear? And I know the powders to ensure it.
The letter, the seal, the drugs for docility – only one puzzle piece was missing, and that was Gríma himself. The puzzle of whether he would deliver the false message to Théoden and see Théodred go to his death.
Saruman, you led me like a dog , he thought bitterly, those days after Dréogan and Esma died. For Gríma thought of himself as the son of Dréogan in those days. You pointed out the uses of this powder and that potion. Taught me to find my way in the dark by the stars. To read and write my letters. To serve Théoden’s seneschal and then take his place. To smile when I was afraid. To believe you.
Saruman had indeed told Gríma a great many things both true and false, but he lie that caught him for certain had been this:
“If you do not help, Gríma, the simpletons of Rohan will allow the country to fall piecemeal to Mordor in your lifetime, and the Westfold – home of your only living kin – will be first to burn.” The wizard turned his eyes on Gríma then and added, “Will you rise up, clever Gríma, to act on the stage of noble men, and gain renown in the Westfold and beyond?”
Well, here he was on the stage of his own undeniable choosing, locked in a spy hole with a message that lied, nobly making ready to commit … what?
He grasped the parchment – Saruman’s conspiracies made overt – and felt a fire start to burn in his lonely, divided heart: the anger of the clever who has been cleverly duped.
I curse you for using me, Saruman, to do your lying, murdering will.
“Then turn back,” said a familiar voice.
Suddenly the closet was ten times colder than the winter day outside, and as sorrowful as an early grave. Iced with fear, he felt a breeze, or a hand, sweep his brow. Only one person had ever done that. His mother.
“Esma? Can it be you?”
The voice said, “Depart now, my son. Find some place far away where you can be a hermit. Use your knowledge to heal. Teach others. Or else, lose your very spirit to an evil you cannot imagine. Please, my son! Flee now.”
“I – Saruman will find me and kill me if I disobey,” Gríma muttered. He thought of the iron bands – the red hot iron bands he had seen in the caves of Isengard – and shuddered.
In haste he turned his thoughts to the sweetness that Saruman had offered and life had withheld: power. Enough to rule a king and put fear in the eyes of others. Enough, maybe, even to rule that one who crossed his path every day and his dreams every night, like a careless temptation, like a reincarnation of Esma herself.
Gríma looked at the parchment and thought, If you can use me like a pawn piece, Milord Wizard, then you will not object if I use another for my wishes in turn. He did not laugh aloud in the closet, but he smiled.
“When Eowyn bids me flee, Mother, then I will consider it,” he whispered.
Grima left the closet through a trap in the floor. He descended a ladder, followed a short passageway to another ladder, and climbed up into a woodshed behind the hall. Both the passageway and the closet were by the courtesy of Saruman, who had generously offered to engineer some comforts to the hall, back in the days when Thengel came from Gondor with his wife and new son.
Leaving the shed carefully, Gríma returned to the hall in the usual way. He would see to it that Théodred went to Erech-on-Morthond to answer the note. And if he did not return, who was to say it was murder? Who knew what arrow might be loosed, or whose knife might slit his throat? Not Gríma. Gríma would be safe, with the king.
Taking such comfort as he could from cold thoughts, Gríma gave the false message to Théoden. And his recommendation, of course, on how to act on it.
That is when they brought word that Théodred was in the stable yard, injured.
When Éomer was eleven, his parents died and he came to live at Edoras. He remembered the first day well because it had been his birthday. Théoden had walked with him to the lower stables and shown him a grey three-year-old with brown eyes. Eomer’s blue eyes had been sad but he did not weep. Théoden admired him for that.
“How beautiful he is!” said Éomer.
“His sire is Théodred’s horse Thunder,” said Théoden. “We call this one Cloud. Here, he likes carrots. Try giving him this one.”
Cloud whinnied, ate the carrot, and looked with appreciation for more.
“Whose horse is he, Milord Uncle?” Éomer asked, unsure whether he wanted to hope.
“Why, yours. You will feed and groom him, and you will get to know each other. Soon you will be trained to handle and ride him.” Théoden reached high up to a shelf and took something from a box. “You will need this helmet. It was Théodred’s when he was your age.”
“I’m to have Théodred’s helmet?”
“It fits you well. See how long the horse tail is, how detailed the carvings? I hope you will wear it when we go riding together, for now I have two sons.”
As Éomer flung himself into Théoden’s sturdy embrace, he heard the words again: “Two sons.”
Éomer loved him for that.
Now it was Éomer’s birthday again, his twenty-third, and once again he was in the icy yard of the lower stables where Théodred sat in the cold mud, clutching his ankle.
“I have jobbed this ankle properly,” said Théodred. “When I stepped on that loose stone, I slipped while my boot heel was still in the stirrup. By tonight it will be black with bruising. I cannot bear any touch of it. Maybe it is broken.”
A serving man approached them. “Milord, Gríma says you are wanted in the hall.”
Neither of them liked Gríma, for all he had been attached to the court as long as Éomer. `I come at my father’s command, not Gríma’s,” said Théodred.
“Gríma says the king orders it.”
The men nodded to the page and started up the hill with Éomer supporting Théodred.
” ‘Gríma says,’ ” said Théodred. “I tire of those words. It is not like Father to let others speak for him.”
“Well, we shall see what he wants. Then you must bind that ankle and pack it in snow. And stay off your feet. It will be a while before you can get around, brother.”
Gríma’s summons left neither of them in good temper. His news of the invitation to Erech-on Morthond irritated Éomer the more.
“Strange that they should want Théodred to come in late winter,” he said, fixing Gríma with an unfriendly stare. `Late spring starts the mating season.”
Gríma cursed himself for overlooking this but he recovered quickly. “Since Théodred is injured Éomer must go in his place.”
Théoden nodded, moving slowly as if unsure of the proper motion. “I agree,” he said.
“No one should go!” Twenty pairs of eyes turned to Éomer at this shocking breach of propriety. No one living had ever heard anyone say “no” to the king.
Red-faced with dismay and embarrassment, Éomer continued in a lower voice. `Traveling to Erech now is unwise. You said it yourself yesterday, Milord. The mountains are awash with snowmelt, nearly impassable.”
If the court folk were startled at Éomer’s shout, they were astonished at what happened next. Théoden King, never known for his reticence, looked down as if confused. And then he turned to Gríma.
“You changed your mind, Milord,” said Gríma. “The summons from Gondor will not wait.”
Éomer tried again. “It is not fitting for me to go in Théodred’s place. The matter is horses! Imrahil’s steward will expect to speak to the king’s son. If we wait until Théodred’s injury is healed, the passes will be mostly free of winter and he can travel safely.”
Gríma said, “Indeed it is not fitting.” Éomer turned redder. “But it cannot be helped.” He added, “Théodred must take more care in dismounting, or he will break two legs next time.”
“Théodred needs no instruction from you, Gríma,” Éomer said. “That is your way, to use part of the truth to suit your designs, and use it ill. Your words are as sly as a snake, Wormtongue.”
Gríma never forgot that it was Éomer who gave him that name.
“Peace in the hall, sister-son,” Théoden said. “Go now.”
Éomer bowed, turned away, and stamped out of the hall, soon followed by a limping Théodred.
“It is ill to leave with hard words between you and Father,” he advised his young cousin.
“He said, ‘Go now.’ I have been disrespectful once today, and that is enough. I will depart before I say something else I will regret. A curse on my rudeness!” He picked up a broken stirrup, looked at it, and then threw it hard against a wall. “After shouting at the king, how could I press my point?”
“At least take your squire. Where is he? You cannot pass through the mountains alone at the end of winter. All it needs is for you to break your leg, and then you are a dead man.”
“He is somewhere in the city, ailing, and I am in no mood to wait. I will take care in the mountains, brother. Once through them and down into Gondor the weather will be fine.”
Théodred watch him mount in an easy motion. As always, on horseback Éomer looked as if he might be part horse himself, so much was he at one with the beast.
“Get provisions at Dunharrow, will you,” he said, handing up Eomer’s cloak. “Erech-on-Morthond is some miles south of the Erech Stone. Say to Imrahil’s steward that Théoden and Théodred send their best wishes and their best horseman.”
“And you, my brother, must see to the king. He looks unwell.”
The cousins parted with affection. The year was 3014 of the Third Age.
– I am borrowing the world of JRRT, whose work I love and respect, and I promise to return it unharmed.