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3
Three

Chapter 3

Much later Háma and Éothain came to me, creeping past silently-sympathetic guards when all others were long in their beds. They risked much, and I cursed them lovingly for the chances taken. However, from them I learned more of Théodred's death, and the black Uruks who had come upon him and his men in such force. From Isengard they were, great orcs of rare strength and power, and yet when they might have shattered our hold on the Fords for good, Théodred's remaining Riders reported that the enemy had suddenly withdrawn. Why they would abandon a fight they were in command of made little sense - until with sick realization I knew what had come to pass. Théodred's death was no mere chance of war. He had been marked, and he had been hunted, and he had been slain. Now I had little doubt that Isengard knew, by some foul chance, precisely where and when Théodred and his riders had moved. How could Théoden not see this? How could he ignore such proof that treachery within his own household set the noose and sprung the trap?

"Perhaps he will listen later," Háma said. "When his wrath has passed."

"And how long has he been angry with Gandalf?" I asked. "That anger lasts even beyond the grave."

"We'll find a way," said Éothain stubbornly. "It is Wormtongue's doing, you know it is!" Then with a dark look he added, "If aught should by chance happen to him -."

"Do not speak so!" I exclaimed. "Anything we do against him will turn the king even more firmly against you! Then we shall be utterly lost!"

"Then what must we do?" Éothain's frustration fairly shot sparks from his eyes. "Éomer, the king weakens daily - we all see it! If he does not lead us, who will?"

"We must bide a little, yet," I said.

"To what purpose?"

"Please, just wait."

"If you wait upon the Heir of Isildur . . ." Éothain's expression darkened, as he slowly shook his head at me. "We know not if this Strider spoke the truth. Your death may yet come from his betrayal, even if you are forgiven for offering justice to the Wormtongue."

"You know he did not lie, Éothain," I said.

"Do I?" Éothain looked at me, and in the flickering torch light I saw clearly the grief and worry upon him. "I thought I knew our king, Éomer. Now I don't know where to rest my faith."

"Éomer is not to be discounted just yet," said Háma stoutly, and forced a visibly-false grin for my sake. "We'll wait, my friend. We'll wait for you and so will all who follow you." Then his smile faltered and fled. "Just don't let us wait until it's too late."

Their footsteps faded with their torchlight, and I was again left alone with doubt and shadow.

***

Dawn came creeping grey and dim, for little light found its way to the lowest halls where I lay. The stillness was such that I could almost hear the stones creak, and my thoughts fled far upon the winds that swept through Edoras and to the hills beyond. One shift of stone, and I might be crushed and forgotten forever, and so I dwelt not upon my own grim estate. Rather I thought upon Aragorn, somewhere on the borders of the great Fanghorn forest, bent upon his stern quest with a tenacity that was humbling. If he willed so for the rescue of two friends, what might he do if he sat upon the throne of Gondor, with armies waiting his word?

"You wait in vain."

Ah, yes, Wormtongue whispered still, as he came ostensibly to check the changing of the guard.

"There are stronger forces than this Strider knows afoot," he said, beyond my oaken door. "If he strays into the forest, he may never return, for there are eyes watching in the wood. And even if his task is true, why should he trouble himself for the return of horses you so foolishly gave up? Indeed, even if his name is true, why should the heir of Isildur have any care for the Rohirrim? Long we have lent our alliance to Gondor, but longer still have her kings been absent from the throne. If we are left leaderless, Gondor will be that much stronger."

"If we are leaderless," I growled to the oaken planks between us. "It is your doing, worm."

"I think not," Wormtongue said, and I could hear the smugness I knew painted his expression. "You betray Théoden's trust in his time of greatest need. And your king wearies from the weight of cares and years. Alas, now Théodred is lost - who then is left as Théoden's heir? For surely it will not be you."

Hating him, I answered not.

"Yet there is one who remains true," he added thoughtfully. "One who is of both the blood and strength to lead her people. She needs only the wisdom of a faithful counselor to guide her path, and the Riddermark will be strong again."

My very soul cried out in stark revulsion, and I nearly strangled on my own words. "She is not for you, foul snake!"

"Peace, Éomer," he said, and his disdainful chuckle echoed beyond the door. "Soon all choices will be beyond you - and your sister is not foolish enough to refuse the one strong hand left to aid her."

"CURSE YOU!"

Yet my shout sledged impotently between the narrow walls of my cell, and Wormtongue left me there like a barking dog on a tether. The boom of the corridor door seemed to echo as a mighty gong of doom. None may live now as they have lived, and few shall keep what they call their own. Aragorn's prophecy drifted from memory, and I wondered then if I would long even keep my life. Wearily I sank down against the rough walls and then closed my eyes. Aragorn, where are you? Please make haste, if only for my sister's sake. . . .

***

If Grima thought to order my death from outside, so, too, I could order his from within. That cold realization crept to the fore, as the hours slid past unmarked. I do not deny that Éothain's reckless plea had lingered in my mind, though the better part of me shrank violently from the folly of murder to secure a throne. However, if I were dead, and if Théoden could not hold his rule much longer, then there seemed little to keep Grima from his plans of power. Éowyn would sooner slip a knife between his ribs than submit to such as him - but had I the right to leave her to that peril? Had I the right to submit to what would seem like justice, except it was whispered from the lips of a craven? For I had no doubt that, even now, Grima detailed my faults and failings to our king, and though Théoden loved me, I feared I could no longer trust him to hear reason. Grima would make me a traitor, and love knows no greater wrath than that born of betrayal. I was as a son to him, but perhaps soon he would see me as Grima painted me, treacherous, faithless, false and conspiring. Indeed, with Théodred dead, Grima might even whisper that I, who was born to be no more than the Third Marshall of the Riddermark, held my own designs for rule in Théoden's stead.

Never had I drawn blood saving only in battle, honorably and with the foe having sword or bow in hand. But as I waited an uncertain fate and the world moved towards darkness, the unthinkable took shape in my mind. A deed I had almost attempted in passion now returned to be viewed in cold blood. I had never sought the duty now facing me. It was my honor to serve my people and my king, and when in the fullness of time Théoden passed to the ages, I would have followed his son Théodred with as faithful a heart. No more did I ever ask. But now our king failed, Théodred lay dead at the Ford of the Isen, and Grima Wormtongue waited in the shadows, washing his grasping hands together. If I stood still, I might not live to see Aragorn's promise kept or our horses returned.

The old tales told of our long-ago king Helm Hammerhand, a man of terrible strength and dour mind. It is said that he once smote a man named Freca a killing blow, when Freca had proven himself to have treasonous ambitions. History might not remember me as kindly as it did Helm, but what choice had I? To save myself, to save my sister, to save my people . . . aye, shadow bred only more shadow.

That night my fitful sleep brought jagged-edged dreams and in them walked a tall, grim, grey-eyed man. Suddenly he looked at me, looked full in my face . . . and then with one long step he turned his back. I tried to cry out after him, tried to shout or scream, but my voice was seized with a clutching paralysis, and I stood frozen as stone while he walked away. I awoke sharply in smothering darkness, and the ache of that unspoken cry was still knotted in my throat.

***

Dawn came bitterly chill and damp, as if the fading ghost of winter crept one last time from the snow-tipped peaks. In my dark cell was neither candle nor flame, and I crouched like a hunted thing, seeking to gather my own meager warmth.

I knew naught of things beyond these rooms, neither how Théoden fared nor if my sister successfully tapped his reason, nor if Wormtongue as ever whispered his slow-dripping poison. The thought niggled that any plans of mine might die unborn, if the first to come for me came at the Wormtongue's bidding. Long I waited, for what I knew not, as the morning began to grow older. Storm it seemed rode with the cold, when thunder came thudding through the walls in a heavy, rolling boom. When it passed, I listened for further rumor of the storm, idly wondering how close and how bad it might be. Yet no other sound followed, and thus I leaped to my feet at the first dim echo of approaching voices. My heart thudded like racing hooves as the corridor door creaked open. I felt briefly weak with relief to hear Háma's familiar voice echoing up the hall, and I dared breathe again as I stepped back from the door.

"Yes, yes, I saw him with my own eyes!" Háma was saying. "It was Gandalf, and yet not Gandalf as he was."

And suddenly I could not breathe at all.

"You speak riddles, man," spoke the voice of the guard. "Gandalf is dead. You said it yourself!"

"Obviously I was mistaken!" Háma insisted. "I tell you, it was he, and with but a touch and a few words he has made our King whole!"

"Háma!" I shouted and hammered on the oak between us. "Open this door and speak to me!"

The poor man barely had the key turned in the lock before I burst through, and turned on him to seize his jerkin with both hands.

"Tell me what news! Tell me what has happened!"

His face shone with unabashed joy despite my handling. "Gandalf has returned! Aragorn is here with the Sword That Was Broken, and Théoden has awakened!"

"How? How is this possible?"

"I know not, only that Gandalf has returned, and he spoke to our king and he has cast Grima Wormtongue upon his face - did you hear the thunder of it? My heart fails to think of it, for such power no Man could withstand. But Éomer!" Háma fisted his fingers in my own shirt front, and I saw tears of gladness in his eyes. "Théoden is awake! He asks for you, Éomer! He has cast aside his staff and seen the light of day - come, we must make haste!"

Haste indeed, for scarcely had he spoken when I was striding for the door. "Where is my sword?"

"It's locked away!"

"Have you a key?" I sent him a hard glance as we reached the last door.

"Yes, of course - wait here."

Wait I did not, but Háma soon came bounding after me. I grasped Gúthwinë's steely weight in my hand, when at last Háma and I came to the steps mounting the high porch before Théoden's hall. Glory it was to fill my lungs with the sweet, clear breath of distant rainfall, and sweeter yet to see proof that the heir of Isildur had spoken in honor There on the terrace above stood Aragorn, stern and tall, and beside him the Elf and Dwarf, faithful as hounds. And there also was Gandalf, whom I had never thought to see again in the living world, yet he seemed strangely changed as he stood all in white, and power sat upon him like an unseen crown. But my eyes fixed on only one, a tall, grave figure with a beard like a frozen waterfall, my king, who now looked out into the day where the chill rains blessed the fields and the clouds drew with them skirts of silver-grey. For the first time in more seasons than I cared to remember, Théoden stood without Grima Wormtongue at his elbow. To my eyes, the absence of the Wormtongue was as peculiar as seeing a man who cast no shadow. Had Gandalf truly worked this great wonder as Háma claimed?

Háma and I trod as silently as we could upon the ancient stairs, while the quiet mutter of their voices drifted down to us. Only the Elf Legolas noted our approach, and he spoke no word.

Then Gandalf suddenly spoke boldly, and looked to the shrouded East. "Verily, that way lies our hope, where sits our greatest fear. Doom hangs on a thread. Yet hope there is still, if we can but stand unconquered for a little while."

What riddles he spoke, I knew not, and my stomach clutched like a cold fist when Théoden began to bend slowly, as if his strength were failing already. Carefully he lowered himself, until he sat upon a bench, and there placed his hands upon his knees.

"Alas, that these evil days should be mine, and should come in my old age, instead of that peace which I have earned." Ah, how the soul-weariness in that beloved voice stabbed me like a jagged blade, and still he spoke. "Alas for Boromir the brave! The young perish and the old linger, withering."

Háma, you dream too soon, I thought bitterly. What earthly power exists that can cleanse the slow poison Grima has so long and thoroughly worked upon our king?

Yet Gandalf spoke again, and almost it seemed he was gently chiding. "Your fingers would remember their old strength better, if they grasped a sword-hilt."

I watched as my King again stood, but he fumbled with empty hands where no sword hung, and seemed somehow surprised. To himself he said, "Where has Grima stowed it?"

In that instant there seemed no greater disgrace, than that Wormtongue should have the keeping of my king's honored sword.

"Take this, dear lord!" I cried. "It was ever at your service!"

With my naked sword in hand I bounded up the last steps, and knelt on the cold stone at Théoden's feet. Thus, and with all my heart, I offered up Gúthwinë to him in both hands, hilt-first, and there waited either his blessing or his judgment. Tall and terrible, he turned to face me, and there was thunder in his eyes that made me afraid - and I was glad for it.

"How comes this?" he said, and it was my King who spoke, he who had led us for years beyond my memory, and not the broken ruin Wormtongue had left us.

Háma's voice wavered unsteadily in a rather disjointed reply. "It is my doing, lord. I understood that Éomer was to be set free. Such joy was in my heart that I may 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," I added quickly.

Still I held my sword for his grasp, though my arms protested the awkward stance. In the stillness of my heart I begged him, if not to accept my service, then that he please once more take up an honest blade - and lead his people as he had in days of old! Cold blue as a winter sky his eyes were, as they looked down at me, and I saw the struggle in them. So long had he been made to believe in false weakness, that the striking off of such shackles came not easily. Yet I would wait, and I cared not of the stones should crumble beneath us, before he made his choice.

Then came Gandalf's quiet voice. "Will you not take the sword?"

Slowly Théoden reached, and slowly those gnarled but still-powerful hands closed about Gúthwinë's hilt. The breath I took was nearer to a sob, as my sword's weight was suddenly lifted from my grasp. There Théoden King stood upon his doorstep with a blade in his hand, and power filled him like the rush of the North wind.

Steel flashed in a swift arc that rent the air, and suddenly the bold tongue of the Rohirrim rang to the rooftops and rain-swept fields below.

"Arise, now, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Dire deeds awake, dark it is eastward.
Let horse be bridled, horn be sounded.
Forth Eorlingas!"

Oh, it was a wonder, as feet thudded upon the stairs and men burst from doorways, braced for they knew not what dire calamity. The astonished guards skidded upon their heels to see their king standing thus, tall and fierce with a sword in his hand. Instead of a cry for help they found a call to arms, and every man of them swept forth his sword to lay at Théoden's feet. How my heart sang!

"Westu Théoden hal!" I shouted, before remembering our guests who spoke the Common Tongue. "It is a joy to us to see you return into your own."

Then joyously I turned to the old wizard, who stood bent and gleaming white and altogether pleased with himself. "Never again shall it be said, Gandalf, that you come with only grief!"

Gandalf's eyes twinkled beneath his great brows as Théoden gave the sword one last bright swing, and then my king looked to me once more. With a deft flip, he caught my sword by the blade, and held the grip for my hands.

"Take back your sword, Éomer, sister-son," he said gently, and everything I had thought lost shone in his eyes. Then when I had done, he turned a stern gaze past me. "Go, Háma, and seek my own sword! Grima has it in his keeping. Bring him to me, also. Now, Gandalf, you said that you had counsel to give, if I would hear it. What is your counsel?"

The tide of change swept even as the rains upon our fields, driven fast by a cold wind but no less welcome for their blessing. From Gandalf's mouth came the wisdom that Grima Wormtongue had long denied, and Théoden my king heard him with new ears. We must ride, we must strike against Saruman to the west, and our people must flee with only that which they could carry to our ancient mountain strongholds. We must ride to battle from a red dawn, with no certainty to claim save only that failure was death to us all. Proof of the urgency of our peril lay in Aragorn's quiet refusal of Théoden's hospitality.

"The men of Rohan must ride forth today," he said. "And we will ride with them, ax, sword, and bow. We did not bring them to rest against your wall, Lord of the Mark." And his grey eyes gleamed warmly as he glanced at me. "And I promised Éomer that my sword and his should be drawn together."

One does not pound a future king upon the shoulders, but Aragorn never knew how close he came, in that moment. Instead, I slapped a hand upon the hilt of my sword, and said, "Now indeed there is hope of victory!"

"Hope, yes," Gandalf said with a cautioning glance. "But Isengard is strong. And other perils draw ever nearer. Do not delay, Théoden, when we are gone. Lead your people swiftly to the Hold of Dunharrow in the hills."

But my king drew himself straighter and I saw the years fall away from his shoulders. "Nay, Gandalf! You do not know your own skill at healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of battle, if it must be." And for the first in a very long time his old blue eyes twinkled. "Thus I shall sleep better."

Aragorn dipped his chin in grave salute. "Then even the defeat of Rohan will be glorious in song."

Yet the cheers and clash of arms of my people demonstrated how little we feared defeat, if ours could but be a glorious fight. To huddle in dread and bar our doors against things of the dark - nay, this was never the way of the Riddermark. The Enemy closing upon us would make us all slaves, but freedom thunders in the heart of even our smallest babes. We are the wind upon the hills and the storm on the mountain, and we will, every one of us, sell our freedom at blood-cost. This and more rang in the voices of our Riders.

Aye, change had come and swiftly, and quiet fell as men came from the hall, first Háma bearing Théoden's sword and behind him in the unfriendly grasp of two guards followed Grima Wormtongue, blinking in the daylight like some pallid, crawling thing which had been plucked from beneath a turned stone. We saw him for the worm he was, yet even now he sought to spin his deceit as on old woman spins wool. Artfully he feigned alarm upon seeing Théoden's new state. The king must rest, the king must eat. The king was bewitched and made forgetful of his treasures and hall - what would become of poor faithful Grima - and who would be left to guard them now? Fool! Did he not see that if Shadow prevailed, neither treasure nor house would be left to any of us?

My king was not without irony, as he gazed at last with clear eyes upon his fawning counselor. Théoden's voice and bearing were as strong as the steel now grasped in his right hand.

"You have my pity," he said. "And I do not send you from my side. I go to war with my men. I bid you come with me and prove your faith."

There were smiles hidden and hands raised to still unseemly laughter at that, as Grima cringed in dismay. Nay, never was a sword meant for his hand, when words had done for him far deadlier work. Nor was he through with his mouthings, and once again he fell to sucking upon the theme of Théoden's age and frailty as a dog upon a sour teat. And last, his game fell upon the table before all eyes.

"Appoint a faithful steward," he cried. "Let your counselor Grima keep all things 'til your return - and I pray that we may see it, though no wise man will deem it hopeful."

Clever fool, did he think we did not know him? Bold now as I had not dared be in many a day, I laughed at the incredulity of his ploy, and did not spare my disdain.

"And if that plea does not excuse you from war, most noble Wormtongue, what office of less honor do you accept? To carry a sack of meal up into the mountains - if any would trust you with it?"

"Nay, Éomer," spoke Gandalf suddenly. "You do not fully understand the mind of Master Wormtongue."

The wizard turned now towards that cringing creature, and almost I could pity him caught before that gaze. Too much of Gandalf's time had been lost already, whilst Grima Wormtongue contrived his own designs - or were they his own? For Gandalf suddenly spoke in a voice of thunders, and the truth was its lightning.

"Down, snake!" he boomed. "Down on your belly! How long is it since Saruman bought you? What was the promised price?"

The pulse roared in my ears as still Gandalf spoke on, and the vision now brought before my eyes nearly blinded me. I saw the Golden Hall of Meduseld broken and our dead strewn upon the streets, and smoke streaming in black banners down the long skies of the Riddermark. I saw the Enemy carousing upon our hearths and doorsteps, and through the ruins of my people slunk one man, Grima Wormtongue, rubbing his hands together. And there in Gandalf's words I saw Éowyn, my sister of gold and ice, standing before the Wormtongue with empty eyes and a cold East wind wrapping close around her.

"For that reason I would have slain him before," I said, though the words came almost too tightly to speak. "Forgetting the law of the hall. But there were other reasons."

In my mind's eye I already saw Wormtongue's head bouncing and leaping down the long stair, but Gandalf's firm hand in my chest was my first realization that I had stepped forward with my hand on my sword.

"Éowyn is safe now," he said. "But you, Wormtongue, have done what you could for your true master."

And that was the greatest abomination of all. I stood hating whilst counsel was given and counsel taken, when I would have righted many wrongs with the blood of this most wretched of traitors. Yet it was not my place and not my judgment, while Gandalf advocated mercy. Thus Théoden offered Wormtongue the choices I never could have done.

"Ride with me to war," Théoden King said strongly. "And let us see in battle whether you are true; or go now, whither you will. But then -." And I saw fury gathering in his old eyes and heard it in his voice. "If we ever meet again, I shall not be merciful."

His last words lingered like the echo of a mighty drum, and it was as if his age had fallen away like a tattered cloak. Clear at last was his gaze and steady his hand. He stood before us a lord of the House of Eorl, and Grima Wormtongue could not abide it. Like the serpent he was, he coiled upon himself and malignity infused him before our very eyes. And he struck like a serpent strikes, spitting upon the stones at Théoden's feet before he whirled to run, bounding down the stairs and out into the rain-swept day, seeking for the hole or woodpile that might shelter him.

And so he passed from us, upon Théoden's order neither hindered nor hurt, though what sort of horse would consent to bear him I dared not think. Not upon the poorest steed would I wish such a master, but the loss was worth his leaving.

***

Continued ...

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