The Dwarf was no Rider. That he made abundantly clear by his protests. However, his comrade Legolas bid us cast aside saddle and bridle from the mount we brought him. Suspicion and wonder warred marvelously in the faces of my éored, as they watched the elf turn fiery Arod upon hocks and forehand, and bid him side-pass as well, with his mastery demonstrated in no more than empty hands and soft-spoken words. Poor Gimli we hoisted up behind the Elf like a sack of meal, and it was evidence of their great, odd affection that Legolas smiled gaily despite his comrade's desperate, clutching hold. As for Aragorn and tall grey Hasufel, they were two creatures of might and twin glories to behold.
"Farewell, and may you find what you seek!" I said. "Return with what speed you may, and let our swords hereafter shine together!"
"I will come," Aragorn said. Again, his promise.
"And I will come too," Gimli growled, with all the stern dignity a person could muster whilst riding pillion like an extra pack. "The matter of the Lady Galadriel lies still between us. I have yet to teach you gentle speech."
The loyalty of a hound and the fierceness of a bear - I could learn to love even a Dwarf, it seems.
"We shall see," I replied, and tried unsuccessfully to keep a grave face. "So many strange things have chanced that to learn the praise of a fair lady under the loving strokes of a Dwarf's ax will seem no great wonder!"
And so they passed from us, though many of my Riders glowered and doubted that my choice had been made wisely.
"I hope you have not just bargained for your death, my lord," said Éothain, as I found my saddle. "We already face grief enough, without risk to you."
"What other choice had we, Éothain?" I asked. "For they would not be deterred without bloodshed."
"Better theirs than yours!"
"And how many others of us, in the doing?" I looked into his eyes, and waited for the frustrated sadness I knew I would see there. "Peace, my friend. We are too long away already, and the road home yet waits."
The road waited, yes, but no homecoming worth claiming as such. I knew full well I would face my King's wrath. I read it in the faces of the guards outside Meduseld's great doors. Háma's expression bode even more ill, he who held both the honor of Doorwarden to Théoden's hall and my friendship. However, time pressed closely, and there was moment for little more than the firm grasp of his hand on my arm.
"He is greatly wroth, Éomer," he said softly.
I cast him a sour glance. "Does the snake whisper that wrath to him, or is it his own?"
"You know as well as I do." Háma signaled the guards to press open the great doors, and spoke once more under the heavy rumbling of their hinges. "Guard your tongue, I beg you. We cannot spare you as either captain or friend. Matters go ill with us."
Before I could ask of which he spoke, the doors were open and I could tarry no longer. Coming home was like walking under a thundercloud. I blinked at the change from light to dimness, as I strode into the familiar hall. My steps echoed from sun-spill to shadow and back again, between carven pillars and tapestried walls that I have known since boyhood. Oft I had trod here, coming eagerly to the feet of one who became a father to me when my own father and mother were lost, and for many a long year I anticipated naught but his kindest greetings. Now, however, the shadows were deeper than simply the absence of sunlight, and my gaze fixed on him who crouched at the feet of my King's gilded chair. Grima, he was named, but Wormtongue we called him, when the king could not hear, and naught from his lips bode well for Rohan. How he came to be King's Counsel is a tale scarcely worth telling, but one whom we once took for wise now fills me with the certainty of deceit.
However, I wrenched my attention from that creature, and returned it to him who yet sat upon the throne of Rohan. At the foot of the dais I bowed with all sincerity.
"Hail, my king," I greeted him.
"Your king." The words grumbled from the white fall of his beard, and my stomach plunged ere I met the simmering fury in his gaze. "Where was this courtesy scarce three nights past, when you crept out of this house like a thief in the night? In defiance of my expressed wishes!"
"My lord, you know my scouts' reports. There were Orcs down from Emyn Muil, whom we pursued even to the verge of the Entwood, and -."
"And I ordered you not to go! You upon whom I rested my faith abandoned this place, and your king, leaving scarce more than a door guard! And for what? How many are your losses?"
"Fifteen men are slain, my lord." My stomach lurched as if I might become sick. "And a dozen horses."
He pressed his hands trembling on the arms of his chair, and for an instant I thought he might rise and strike me - and I would welcome it. Anything but this, his inarticulate silence and what always came next, the stirring of the snake he kept in his house.
Gathering myself, I said, "We did learn that our suspicions are well-founded, however. These were greater Orcs, powerful fighters, and all bore the White Hand of Saruman. He is truly allied with the Dark Lord, of that there can no longer be doubt. My lord, it is only time before they come upon us in force, if we do not muster to strike, first."
"The Orcs," said Wormtongue, "will return, and multiply. How will you replace your missing Riders?"
"Victory comes not without price," I said stiffly. What knew he of battle, this crawling thing of shadows and well-guarded halls?
"Ah, victory?" Wormtongue arose and peered at me through sleepy-lidded eyes. So like a reptile he was, coiling and slithering with deceptive smoothness, yet always whispering, and always poised to strike. "And of what use is this 'victory' to us? You defy your king; you leave us without guard or strength - you become rebellious and dangerous, Éomer Éomund's son."
The only sound I made was a stifled growl, as I remembered Háma's warning. How dared he question me - yet how dared I risk losing the little freedom we had left to us?
"Do you bear any other news?" Théoden then demanded. "Any but ill tidings?"
"We also met three travelers, near the eave of the Fangorn wood."
"Travelers? Who are they? How many? Where are they? I would see them."
"I let them pass, my lord. They were but three and they are hunting two friends who were taken captive by the same Orcs we found upon our borders. Their friends were not among the Orcs we slew, however, so we lent them horses to speed them on their quest. But you shall have meeting with them, for they are sworn to return the horses here and thence present themselves before you."
Suspicion and doubt drew heavy lines in Théoden's bearded face. "You trust strangers overmuch, sister's son."
"You know the laws of passage upon our lands," added Wormtongue. "And yet you choose to overlook them."
"I trust where trust is warranted, my king." Ignoring Wormtongue's gloating proximity, I spoke the greater message. "For they are led by one who says he is Isildur's heir, Aragorn Arathorn's son of Gondor. My lord, he bears the Sword of Elendil! The Sword That Was Broken - it has been reforged, I saw it with my own eyes!"
"And you believe this . . . person?" Théoden asked.
"Yes! They bore the favor of the Lady of the Golden Wood, which no mortal man has owned. It is the truth, my lord. I saw it in his eyes."
Alas, I could see no softening in Théoden's manner, and Wormtongue stirred beside him. My king's gaze glittered coldly, as he spoke in tones of heavy doubt.
"And what news did these wanderers speak to you?"
"Alas, their tidings were dark, my lord. Boromir of Gondor was slain five days past, by the same Orcs whom we pursued and destroyed on our borders. And Gandalf Greyhame has been lost in the Mines of Moria."
"Gandalf." The word spilled as a bad taste from Théoden's mouth. "The loss of Shadowfax was of far greater grief to me than the loss of a wizard. And yet my horse returns unmanageable, whilst the wizard continues on in his mischief! Nay, I find no sorrow in Gandalf's passing from this world. In fact, I say good riddance. But Boromir! Alas, the doom of the world will drown us, if such as he is lost! If Gondor falls, what becomes of us?"
"A question indeed, my King," Wormtongue hissed. "When even within in your own household faithlessness exists. You have lost Théodred, your right hand, and here your left hand openly defies you."
Silence slammed in around us like a thunderbolt, and in it I could hear the slow rasp of my king's breathing and the thudding of my own heart.
"Lost Théodred?" I whispered.
There came no reply.
"Please -." In desperation I looked from Grima's opaque stare to my king, who would not meet my eyes. "Please ... What do you mean?"
"He is dead," said Théoden, and seemed to sink in upon himself, as the wind deserts a fallen flag.
My stomach twisted and my mind reeled. Théodred dead - how was this possible? Well I know the wages of war and how mortal we men are, but this was Théodred - how? Why? A muscle in the back of my leg began to clench spasmodically as I stood there.
"My son is dead," Théoden repeated in a brittle voice. "And hope dies with him."
"Pray not so," said Wormtongue piously, above folded hands. "Alas, yes, Théodred is dead, slain at the Fords of the Isen not four days past, together with many men - and you would leave your King and people without defense." Now he directed his cold stare to me as his voice rose to rolling tones. "You bring us only death and you leave us with only danger. One might even suppose you wish to weaken what strength we do have, with your recklessness. Your own glory, your own vengeance, comes before sworn duty to your own king."
Heat rose from my belly as the breath of a forge, and I forced my words through clenched teeth. "You speak lies!"
"I speak truth!" he said.
"You do not know the truth!" I shouted, and my voice rang through the hall to shock even my own ears.
"Then whom do you serve, son of Éomund? Your king or yourself?" Wormtongue's voice rose to almost match mine, then dropped to a sleek snarl. "Or do you serve another, darker master?"
His words shivered there in thunderstruck silence, and I heard only the pulse thundering in my ears. I could scarcely breathe for my fury, and I looked by instinct to Théoden, my uncle, my king, the father of my heart - and he simply sat hunched in his chair, slowly crumbling beneath Wormtongue's constant, insidious burden of despair. Then I looked to the snake himself - and he smiled at me. Théodred was dead and my king was mayhap dying, and Grima Wormtongue smiled at me.
The roar of my rage seemed to come from another, slamming among the stone pillars and among the vaulted rafters.
"Curse you, snake! Repent those words or die where you stand!"
Shouts for the guards crashed amongst my own cries, and strong arms seized and pinioned me ere I could draw sword, but still I raged.
"Take them back, Worm! Take your lies back, or you will not live to see another sunrise! Your poison has spread far enough! You would destroy us all, I see your lies, and I will see you dead for all you have done!"
Voices rang and tangled and I was crushed to my knees, and held there with both arms wrenched behind me, heavy hands pressing my shoulders until the bones creaked. Wormtongue shouted, Théoden shouted, and within my head my own fury roared in a towering storm.
"Hear me, Éomer!"
Yes, I heard. I heard as all the hall fell to ringing silence, and I looked up to the hunched, glowering figure of Théoden King.
"You dare speak thus before me? You defy not only my word, but the laws of my hall? I am ashamed you are my sister's son! Guards! Get him out of my sight! Get him out!"
I was numb beyond expression, stunned beyond thought, and though the hands of the guards remained heavy and strong, I resisted not. They stripped me of helm, sword, and mail with no words spoken, and heaved me to my stumbling feet. I went as one drugged, and they piloted me swiftly to the cells. Stone walls closed tight around me, and doors slammed in ringing steel, ere I was left alone. There in darkness and damp earth and ancient, musty straw, my thoughts flew whither I could not govern them. I saw a grey-eyed stranger who won my faith with but a look and a word. I saw the faces of fifteen good men who followed me to battle, and who now would rest forever in a barrow at Fangorn's marge. I saw brave Théodred, my cousin and friend who taught a gangling boy the arts of war, and who won my love and the love of all who knew him with his great heart and true spirit. I saw the kingly man who guided me to the ways of manhood and leadership, who applauded my successes and instructed me past my failures, and of all things, I remembered the rumble of my beloved uncle's voice close to my ear, as long ago my sister and I listened to stories in his arms. Lost, all was lost to me now.
Théodred my brother ... wherever you are Beyond, do you look back for us? Will you wait until I come? Alas, I am truly my father's son, and I have cast myself into the trap of my enemies.
At last I drew my knees to my chest with both arms, and I found I had no strength left. For anger that could not be spent and despair that would not be vanquished, I wept.
I was not utterly forsaken, at least so far as someone thought to bring me supper. I stood at the echoing clank of the door at the corridor's end, and as I peered through the tiny window in my cell door, my heart sighed painfully to the sight of torchlight on long, golden hair. If I was the spear and the hauberk, my sister Éowyn was a sheathed sword. Since she was a toddling thing who dogged my steps, and I a mischievous five or six, she had been my friend, my companion, my partner in much childish devilment. I could not even escape her in practice at arms, for she insisted upon taking up a blade herself. It was not unknown for women of the Riddermark to learn the arts of war, and though she lacked a warrior's strength, she was swift and keen enough to set many an unsuspecting sparring partner on the defensive. She was flame and a quick wind, laughter and a fierce wit - and yet now I watched her daily grow ever more quiet and still, as if winter crept where once lilies grew. Small wonder, when frost came as the ever-present shadow of Grima Wormtongue. My belly curdled to see who held the torch for her.
"You have a visitor, Éomer," Grima announced, and his voice resounded hollowly in the corridor. Behind his sly smile his mockery was clear; by his bidding was she permitted here, and those guileful eyes watched her every step.
Éowyn spoke not, as she brought a cloth-covered platter to my cell door. As Grima unlocked it, her eyes met mine only fleetingly, before she handed the plate to me. I reached under the plate to touch one of her hands, and then she looked up and her eyes locked on mine in sudden fierceness.
"Leave us, Grima," she said. When he hesitated, she turned with a glance that would have frozen steel. "Wait with the guard, for I have no fear of my own brother."
"As you wish, lady," he replied, and made an obsequious bow. He retreated towards the guard who waited at the corridor door, but did not leave without letting me see his silent malice clearly.
I set aside the supper, for I had no appetite, and took both her hands in mine. Her slender fingers tightened to a painful grip, and looking in her eyes I saw the mirror of all the grief I carried within.
She read me as easily. "You have heard the news of Théodred, then."
"Yes. Grima told me."
Her features twisted in a swift, sharp grimace, then smoothed again.
"You should not have come," I said softly.
"And you should not be a fool, dear brother." Cool as still water she was, and yet I knew too well the shadowed fear in her eyes.
"I regret only that Théoden does not hear me," I replied. "Not that I spoke."
Éowyn pulled her hands free and looked down. "Théoden hears none of us anymore, only the whispers of the Wormtongue."
"But he must awaken!" I whispered harshly. "We have not merely enemies to the West, but also to the East - Saruman and the Dark Lord are as hammer and anvil, and the Riddermark is to be crushed between, if we do not awaken. Is there any word from Erkenbrand of Westfold? If Saruman's Orcs should move openly and in force, I fear how it may go with him."
"Yes," she said quietly. "It was he who sent messengers with word of Théodred's death. Erkenbrand begged for you to bring relief, but you had already gone. Théodred ..." Her voice faltered. "His last words were to let him lie at the Fords of the Isen, and they should be held until you came."
My fist slammed the wooden door with a crash and she flinched. Erkenbrand needed me - and already that plea was days old. For love of all that was precious, did no one but me fear what transpired upon on our western borders? If Erkenbrand could not hold, the forces of Isengard would rush upon us in a black flood and all - all would be lost.
"Théoden must be made to see our danger." My grinding teeth skidded one off the other with the strength of my frustration. "He must!"
"I speak as I can," Éowyn said despondently. "But my words are water upon stone. Would that I could ride with you and at least strike a worthy blow for all the evil that comes upon us!"
"Nay, dear sister. We find death as often as we bring it." I reached to touch her cheek, only to let my hand drop as she flinched away. "We have lost Théodred. I would not lose you, as well."
"How do you know that I am not already lost?" Her eyes flashed as her sharp whisper rasped the walls. "I wait in these dark halls, I watch Théoden wither and you ride away, and my task is to comfort the grieving and widowed when I have no comfort for myself! For, if we fall, I simply wait the end with empty hands."
Her voice broke at the last, and her eyes glittered with unshed grief. Yet even as my heart cracked into pieces, her chin rose to lovely, stern lines and she dashed away the traitorous tears.
"I shall speak again to our king, brother. If e'er I can turn his ear to me, it shall be done. You have done nothing that has not already been whispered in the thoughts of many others - including me."
Ah, thus spoke my lioness, and I laughed softly as I gathered her into a quick, fierce embrace. My sister was fragile as a willow and strong as steel and the heart of the Riddermark beat in her breast.
Then I held her at arms' length, and found a weak smile. "Did I tell you that I met a Dwarf and an Elf the other day? In the very flesh!"
"You're changing the subject, brother mine."
"Yes, I am."
She sighed in a familiar note of exasperation, but I saw also the hint of a smile. "Very well, you may tell your tale, but only if you will eat what I brought you, while you speak."
The deal was made, and so I told Éowyn of my meeting with Aragorn, and the tale of the three hunters. Meanwhile I silently prayed that when - not if - Aragorn came, he would bring with him hope to the Golden Halls of Meduseld.