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Twilight of the Gods: 11. A Conflict of Interests Part 2
Éomer rose. Expectant faces stared at him. The moment had arrived. So far, the council had taken place in an intense atmosphere befitting the subject, but one that had been marked by a mutual, deep-running respect among its members. Facts had been reported and heard, opinions been exchanged, and there had not been as much as a heated word among the warriors. But things were bound to change now, the king thought grimly as his gaze swept over his waiting kinsmen, giving them a curt nod one after the other in acknowledgement.
“Honourable members of the council…” Éomer’s gaze went to his wife first, who was looking up to him from her own throne at his side with an expression of confidence, then went on to find Elfhelm. His friend was wearing an unreadable expression much as he himself. The Lord of Eastfold knew what was to follow, but also knew he had to act surprised, no small task for a truth-loving, straightforward Rohirrim. Yet it would only complicate things if Erkenbrand learned of the conversation they had had the evening before, immediately after the arrival of Aldburg’s éored. Éomer knew he could blindly trust in his friend’s shrewdness. Elfhelm was every bit a marshal as his counterpart of the Westfold. He would hold his own. And Thor… Thor held a key role in the scenario which was about to unfold with his revelation. It was him Erkenbrand would most likely suspect of changing the king’s mind against him. Still he deemed the man, who was only slightly younger than Éomer himself, experienced enough to handle the situation. His hard upbringing had steeled the man of Dunlendish descent to stay calm even under the most grim-looking situations, so he would be quite ready to face an angry marshal. The other side. Erkenbrand, Galdur…
Éomer descended the two steps of the dais, the hands on his back.
“Marshal Erkenbrand, it has been three days now since you brought us the tidings of the incidents in the Westmark. We have held two councils, we have heard all the facts, opinions, assumptions and suggestions we needed to hear to come to an understanding of the situation, and now it is time for the ruling of this council. I cannot stress enough how much I appreciate everybody’s attendance and the calm and constructive way of discussion we’ve had this morning. You may have noticed, however, that I myself did not contribute much to it, and I will tell you why: It is because in my heart, the path that must be taken, the reaction that must follow these events has already been decided upon. It had already been decided upon before this council, but I needed to view the subject from all different angles, angles which only you, my most trusted advisors, could supply. Hearing your opinions and suggestions has been valuable, even if they did not change my point of view. They did, however, cause me to thoroughly question my decision, and I have found my answer and can now stand by it with even greater conviction than before.”
He walked through the aisle and could almost feel Erkenbrand’s expectant gaze between his shoulder-blades as he turned around to face the one man he expected to oppose him.
“Marshal Erkenbrand, I share your opinion that there are only two solutions to the problem we are faced with. A limited retaliation for the provocation the people of Dunland brought on would not do. An incursion with limited troops into the Misty Mountains to wipe out only their soldiers, or even all their adult men, would cost us more men and horses, both of which we cannot afford to lose in the light of the problems the Mark is faced with after the war. It would furthermore stir up yet more hatred in the survivors, the women and children we spared, and in a few years time, the problem would surface anew once the boys had grown into men. In our weakened position, we cannot afford for that to happen. It is a path of action which is shut to us.”
His gaze found Elfhelm. The Lord of Eastfold still wore a non-telling expression on his broad, scarred features, eyes unfocussed staring into the twilight of the hall. Had the king not known his friend’s thoughts from the night before, he would not have been able to guess them himself. As it were, the experienced warrior had uttered his scepticism at his ruler’s plan, yet he had also declared that he would continue to stand loyally by his side and help the younger man on the rocky path he had chosen. It was good to know in the scheme of things whom to trust, Éomer figured. There would not be too many men left of that quality after he had revealed his campaign for peace. Elfhelm himself had warned him of the possibility of treason not only among his soldiers, but also his fellow kinsmen. It was an unprecedented event that a king would decide against the wish of his entire people, and there was no telling what would happen. Unwilling to further follow the thought down, Éomer shoved it away and looked at Gamling to his left as he continued, his voice carrying.
“The first possible solution would thus have to be the complete eradication of the Dunlending people. Not just their warriors, but their old, their women… and their children, whether they are already on their way to adolescence or still lying in the crib.” He paused to let his words echo into silence and to let the horrid image settle in the men’s minds, and found grim faces staring back at himself, or, in Elfhelm’s case, into nothing. “Only the hardest strike we could deliver would ensure that our weakened people would never again be faced with a danger from the west. It would mean a gathering of all our forces, of all the warriors the Mark is still able to muster in order to lay our foes’ land to waste before they can do the same to us. Such a strike would mean to rip out the plant by its roots, never to grow back.”
Only slightly shifting his view, his gaze came to rest on the Dunlandish scout, and he could not hold back the sudden memory of Thor’s words, which had been uttered only a few hours ago to lasting effect. Éomer had asked the younger man upon the prospects of a lasting peace between their two peoples, and the answer had illustrated quite clearly to him what he was up against.
‘They hate you. Their hatred for you is the thought they wake up with in the morning, and it is the last thought before they go to sleep. They blame you for the misery of their entire existence. If a sickness befalls a village, it is because of you. If the harvest is bad, it is because of you. The people of Rohan are to blame for every single death that occurs, be it through illness, hunger or accident. If children are stillborn, the Rohirrim are blamed. You drove them into the hills and took all fertile land for yourselves. You are to them the very image of cruelty and greed. Every child grows up with that knowledge implanted into its head. They hate even before they can properly walk. That, my king, is what you are up against.’
A shadow fell on Éomer’s face as his eyes met with the captain’s, weighed down by the sheer enormity of his task. The younger man’s face looked grim, yet distant. He had made it clear that while he welcomed his king’s efforts and would do everything in his power to support his campaign, he was also deeply sceptic of the outcome. The gap between the two peoples was wide and would not easily be bridged. Whether it would be possible at all to overcome 500 years of hatred, he dared not predict.
Even just hearing about the plans that existed for the punishment for his former people obviously caused Thor great distress. They were not all evil, he had stressed in their conversation. The horrible deeds some of their warriors had committed and which had caused the young scout to eventually change sides, had resulted from generations of having to live life in misery, something Éomer had understood once his kinsman had gone into detail. The scout had also been appalled at Éomer’s insinuation about the purpose of the abducted Rohirrim, when he had heatedly answered that they were still talking about a race of men, not orcs. Never, Thor had pressed, hardly able to contain his usually calm temper, would the Wild Men cannibalise their kind, no matter how much they hated them!
Éomer hoped the man knew his people as well as he thought as his gaze wandered further, this time coming to rest on the banner of his house behind the throne. By what he was about to do, he would be sticking out his neck for everyone to cut it off. Elfhelm had said so, and there could be no question that he was right. The respect of his people, their love for him, his honour – all would turn into their exact opposite if he had misjudged the situation and led Rohan into doom. The green banner with the white horse had seen days of glory under Eorl and his line. Would they turn into days of shame now under his reign? His father would be looking down on him now. Eorl himself would see him and judge his successor’s deeds for their battered kingdom. If only he did the right thing... He turned around to face Erkenbrand, whose impatient expression was urging him to go on, and he complied. It was time to reveal Lothíriel’s idea.
“However, such a massive strike would also mean a bloodbath, an unparalleled slaughter of the innocent and a betrayal of all values that we and our forefathers fought to uphold and protected over the centuries. It would mean soiling our honour with murder for all times, and it would most likely also lead to an estrangement from our allies who could under no circumstances understand our actions. This horrible deed would isolate us. It would doom us to stand alone in the world, which is a concession I am not willing to make in the name of vengeance. We need our allies, and there has to be another way.” The first signs of comprehension began to glimmer in Erkenbrand’s hawk-eyes, the first signs of a beginning frown, as he ended: “It is for these reasons that I have chosen to pursue the other of the two given solutions, which will be a course towards a lasting peace with the people of Dunland on a grounds we have yet to determine.”
For a moment, none of the members spoke. The Golden Hall of Meduseld itself seemed frozen by its king’s statement. All colour had drained from Erkenbrand’s face as he fought for words, and the captain at his side did not look much better.
“But… sire –“
Éomer raised his chin as he awaited the marshal’s objection.
“Sire, after all that we’ve learned – after all I have told you – how can this be your decision?”
“Marshal, I am aware that my decision comes as a surprise, yet what may appear to you as a letdown now may very well be the only way to ensure the prosperity of our people in the future. Be assured that I gave this decision more thought than I ever gave to anything else. I am aware of the risk, but it would be a lie not to admit that the other way doesn’t involve the same risk. If we can avoid battle in our weakened state, we should seize the opportunity.”
Erkenbrand wrung his hands.
“But it will be an unmistakable sign to all our foes that we are too weak to defend what is ours! Once the word spreads, they will spill like a foul flood into our lands and take it from us! It is our people who will be slaughtered then, sire! The Mark will fall if we show any weakness at all!” The old warrior was in severe distress, his features a mask of uncomprehending shock. It pained Éomer to be the reason for the esteemed soldier’s turmoil, but there was no way back now.
“Marshal, please! I hold nothing but the utmost respect for your way of keeping the Westfold under our control for so long. You lost many men in the process and even had to suffer personal tragedies in your constant battle for keeping our people safe. Your renown and respect have been well-earned. But something will have to change in the way Rohirrim and Dunlendings treat each other, or our two countries will become deserted wastelands. I am aware of the danger my decision holds for the Mark. I would that it were different, but there seems to be no other way if we ever want for this quarrel to end. Trust me that the negotiations – if it will come to that – will not make us appear weak in the faces of our enemies. If we reach a peace, it will be on our terms. The terms we will decide upon in this council today. The first condition, the base of us entering into negotiations at all, being the return of the abducted men. We will not appear weak, and we will not let our people down.”
“But what if those men are dead, my lord?” Erkenbrand pressed, hardly able to restrain himself. It was still the king he was talking to. “What if they are dead and have been serving the purpose I described to you?”
“The Dunlendings are no beasts, marshal!” Thor cut in, unwilling to take Erkenbrand’s open accusation and his black eyes cutting to the older man in open challenge. Elfhelm’s hand landed heavily on his shoulder, but he paid it no heed. “No matter how much they hate the Rohirrim, they would never lower themselves to the level of animals! I will not let that insult stand!”
Erkenbrand stared back at him, realisation dawning on his drawn face as he sneered menacingly:
“So it was you who messed with the king’s mind! I should have known!”
“Marshal Erkenbrand!” The council was getting out of hand more quickly than Éomer had thought. Two quick paces brought him to a halt in front of the steaming Lord of Westfold. “You will mind your words in this hall! I assure you that I am quite capable of having an opinion of my own without needing someone to ‘mess with my mind’.”
The wiry man narrowed his eyes, and in them, anger and a hurt feeling of betrayal burnt underneath the surface.
“I apologise, Éomer-king. But I must admit that I am shocked by the extent of the conspiracy that seems to be going on against myself here. And I have to admit that I am equally shocked by the utter change in the former Third Marshal’s bearing, as well! Only three days ago, you were righteously enraged about the tidings I brought! You were ready to assemble the éoreds and head off for Dunland in the wink of an eye. Where is that man now that Rohan needs him the most? What has happened, I ask myself!”
Éomer’s own temper flared up now, but no good would come out of it if he entered into a shouting contest with his marshal. Neither could he simply order Erkenbrand to remain silent, the man held too much renown himself. After the king and yet before Elfhelm, he was the second-most respected warrior in the entire kingdom, a man beyond all doubt, and Éomer could not afford to lose his loyalty. Even though he knew that he would not stand a chance of convincing a man who had dedicated his entire life to battling their western neighbours, he had to make at least an effort at persuading him to not thwart his campaign for peace. In the worst case, he would have to order his obedience. It would have to be his last measure though, because ordering a man to do the opposite of what he believed in had to result in an atmosphere of tension. Still, obedience to the king was a character trait inherent to every Rohirrim, soldiers and peasants alike. Even during the unfortunate times of Gríma Wormtongue’s secret rule, there had been no attempt to unseat Théoden-King from his throne. No uproar, no rebellion. Only deep worry and concern. Of course, once away from Edoras, Éomer and his cousin had taken the liberty of making their own decisions in Rohan’s best interest, but open disobedience to the king’s orders was unheard of. Counting history on his side, Éomer looked his childhood idol straight in the eye.
“That man you’ve known, Marshal Erkenbrand, that fierce, vengeful and hard-handed son of Éomund, former Third Marshal of Riddermark, has grown up. He has matured and become King of Riddermark. Your own great wisdom and experience will tell you – once you can see past your anger - that the ruler of an entire kingdom must look at things differently than the soldiers he commands.”
“This is not a strange concept to me,” the old warrior responded, his eyes staying on the king who made his way back to the dais, turning his back on the others after another thorough, long glance, and his gaze shifted back to the other members of the council. “Yet a king is only as wise as the people who counsel him… and of course this is the counsel you get when you ask a Dunlending in Dunlendian affairs!” He glowered at the hard-breathing Thor, who was held back from answering heatedly to the insinuated accusation only by the hand of the Lord of Eastfold on his shoulder. Even if his kinsman was being insulted, Elfhelm knew that right now it was the king’s duty to defend him. “Of course he opposes our suggestion of eradicating the people he grew up amongst, my lord! He could not tell you anything else, it is in his blood! You should have known better than to ask him!”
“And whom should I have asked instead?” Éomer raised his voice. He had intended to sit down, but Erkenbrand’s last remark caused him change his mind. Posture was important in this battle. He could not afford to diminish his position by sitting down. With arched eyebrows and his arms crossed over his chest, Éomer stared at his opponent from his elevated position on the dais. Sensing his wife’s concerned gaze in his back. “You? A man who fought them his entire life, a man who has lost his family to them and is blinded by his hatred, even if it is justified? If it had been your decision, Lord Erkenbrand, there would not even have been a council! You would have summoned every rider you could have gotten a hold of and laid Dunland to ruin without wasting a single word of discussion!”
“And rightly so! It is the only language these primitives understand!” Again he turned to Thor, and his eyes narrowed. “Captain Thor, you need not glower at me like that! You know it better than anyone of us, and I am certain you know much more than you told us here. It makes me wonder whether you are still, at heart, one of them, even if you have been living among us and enjoying the better life for years. Who knows what the true reason is for your living here!”
“Marshal Erkenbrand!” Éomer roared, together with Elfhelm. A quick silent exchange between the two men told the Marshal of Eastfold that he would be granted the defence of his second-in-command, who seemed all too eager to answer for himself.
“You are forgetting yourself, marshal!” Elfhelm boomed, his grey eyes sparkling as he took a determined step forth. “Captain Thor is not the man in my éored I trust the most for nothing! He is well-respected among my men, and there are none among them who would not gladly give their life for him in battle. Only eighteen months ago, he played a substantial part in the king’s survival, so how dare you question his loyalty?”
The older warrior accepted the challenge his counterpart from the other part of the kingdom proposed willingly as he came to a halt directly in front of him, his features so hard, they looked as if they had been hewn into granite.
“Until today, I would not have dared to, Marshal Elfhelm. Until today, I had no reason to believe otherwise. But suddenly, I find myself surrounded by proof that something is wrong not only with your captain’s principles. What about your own loyalty, Marshal Elfhelm? Where does it lie?” He snorted. “Alas, the answer to that question is all too clear, even if it stands for truly Rohirric ideals. Our king’s father was your best friend, and that is why you have extended your friendship to his son. A noble and so far unquestionable decision. But people – even rulers – can err! We have a greater responsibility than that to single man, marshal: That to our land! This is why we are holding these councils! So that all can be heard! If we did not, whoever sat on Rohan’s throne could just do as he pleases. Why even call us if the king decided over the fate of our land alone? Had you forgotten that when you entered the Golden Hall last night for a conversation none of the members of this council bothered to tell me about?” He turned back Éomer, open accusation in his eyes.
“That is right, sire. Marshal Elfhelm’s and Captain Thor’s arrival at Meduseld was never announced to me, even though we waited the entire afternoon for them. Together! I was not called to the Golden Hall when they finally arrived in the night. Oh yes, my lord...” Erkenbrand tried to clamp down his teeth, but disappointment was boiling so hot in him that it was impossible to swallow the rest of what he had to say. He nodded and took another deep breath. “We saw them at the stables. We noticed how the marshal and the captain made their way into Meduseld and did not return for a very long time, even though it was late.” A quick, accusatory glance at the Lord of Eastfold. “It was obvious that your reasons for visiting King Éomer were not just to make your arrival known, Marshal Elfhelm, and so I expected to be summoned, too...” He turned back to the king. “But I wasn’t.”
“The meeting was mainly of a private nature, marshal, and besides, since our council had been scheduled for a mere few hours later, there was no need to,” Éomer replied to the insinuation in a short, clipped tone. “However, I do not have to explain myself to you, and I don’t think I like your tone. You will mind your words in these halls, marshal!”
“I apologise, my lord. Please forgive my undue forwardness.”
The older man bowed his head in what Éomer took as acted obedience, but he decided that it would do… for now. Satisfied, he turned to exchange a brief glance with his wife, and found her looking upon him with a glowing sense of pride over his unexpected display of composure and rationality. In fact, he had even surprised himself. Whereas in his earlier days, he would have thankfully answered to any disrespectful challenge in a much more heatedly manner, the ruler of a land could not afford to. He had to rely on words to solve his conflicts, and Éomer had not been certain whether he actually had it in himself. Words had failed him before once emotion had gotten the better of him. In response to Lothíriel’s display of appreciation, he granted her a small return smile… when he suddenly heard an unexpected chuckle behind him. The sound was so utterly unfitting of the situation, it made him swivel. It was Erkenbrand.
“Marshal Erkenbrand, would you care to share the reason for your amusement with the rest of us, for it seems rather out-of-place in the light of the things we are discussing.”
“Aye, my king.” The warrior raised his head, and Éomer did not like the expression of mockery on the older man’s face. “I would. I was laughing at my own stupidity and blindness.” His gaze shifted to Lothíriel, and when their eyes locked, he saw the understanding in the queen’s features that her ploy had been uncovered. “It was not Captain Thor who persuaded you to change your mind and turn your back on your people at all... it was her!”
He stepped forth, and his eyes became narrow slits in which the grey sparkled like ice over a deep trench as he came to a halt at the foot of the dais, arms crossed over his chest.
“It was you! Who would have suspected it?“ A bitter laugh. “A woman is secretly ruling Meduseld, and none of us noticed it until now. How cunning. How very cunning of you, daughter of Dol Amroth! What did you do to our king, Lady Lothíriel? Tell me!”
“Marshal Erkenbrand!” Éomer’s infuriated voice cut through his tirade without succeeding in turning his attention away from the queen. Lothíriel, who was not evading his piercing stare, but instead answered his challenge with determination in her face that caused Erkenbrand’s blood to boil. “I warn you! I will not tolerate you speaking to the queen or to me in this manner!”
“Oh, but what manner would be fitting, my lord?” Erkenbrand sneered, only briefly willing to shift his gaze to the fuming king as he stood on the dais, glaring down on him, his shoulders squared. His whole body language unmistakably betraying that Éomer’s patience had reached its end now. Still, the Lord of Westfold could not pull back. He felt disgusted beyond belief with what he had just uncovered. “For only now do I finally see the full extent of the conspiracy that is going on against me!”
“There is no conspiracy against you, marshal, and I strongly advise you to step back and watch your words! You are overstepping all boundaries!”
“It began on the day I brought you the tidings, my lord,” Erkenbrand continued, unfazed by the younger man’s anger and his piercing gaze never once left Lothíriel. “It began with the queen’s unusual attendance at the first council. And then somewhere during that night, I suppose she must have whispered something into your ear, something that changed your mind, or has it been a potion of some sorts?“
Éomer’s voice was low. Dangerous.
“Marshal, for the very last time, you will watch your tone, or I will be forced to have you removed from this council! You appear to have forgotten your place!”
Erkenbrand’s attention snapped back to his ruler.
“My place? My place, sire, is firmly at Rohan’s side. It is at the Westfold’s side! For centuries, we weathered the worst troubles thanks to the loyalty and the courage of our people, but never before did we have to brave trouble from within!” He spun to face Lothíriel, and the disdain on his face could no longer be mistaken while he still addressed the king. “My lord, you have been a valiant fighter for the Mark for almost half your life. You are the descendant of our greatest king. How could you do this? How could you turn your back on your people and lay their lives into the hands of a woman? A woman who is not even of Rohirrim ancestry?”
A quick glance Lothíriel told Éomer that his wife had expected the warrior’s accusation and was inwardly prepared for the attack. She was counting on him to set the disappointed Erkenbrand right, so he could not very well rise to the bait the marshal offered him. He had to remain calm. Focussed. He turned around, his lips a thin line as he stepped down the dais towards his waiting opponent, meeting the older man’s sparkling eyes with a hard stare of his own.
“Why, marshal? Are wise words not wise if a woman utters them? Do we have to ignore truths only because a woman sees them first, only to demonstrate that it is our will that will be done in the end? Wouldn’t that rather count as betraying our people?”
“So you admit it.”
“Aye. I admit it.” Éomer nodded. “You always were a good observer, Lord Erkenbrand. It was my mistake that I thought I’d have to keep from you who it was that made me think about Rohan’s future. I should have told you straight away.” He straightened, and his gaze swept the room, meeting concerned and sceptical faces. “Yet your discovery changes nothing. The facts still remain, and our reaction to them will be the one I stated, for the reasons I have already given you. I realise that the logic behind my wife’s idea may not be obvious at first to a warrior who has devoted his whole life to battle. It was hard for me to see it, too, make no mistake about that. Yet I firmly believe that if we take that risk and show that we are, in fact, willing to learn a different and better way of existence, our people will learn to cherish it. For centuries, we have been a race of warriors. We know no other way of life.. But tell me, marshal, deep down inside – don’t you sometimes long for peaceful times, too? Deep down? To see no more misery, to forget the taste of fear and dread and the smell of blood and fire ...wouldn’t that be something to strive for indeed?”
“A different and better way of existence, you say, my king,” Erkenbrand rebuked, inhaling deeply. “Alas, it is but a wonderful dream, a dream you, of all the men I know, should know better than to believe in! A dream our people had been dreaming for centuries without it becoming reality. Each attempt at making it a fact was quickly drowned in oceans of blood. But I do not have to tell you that, you know it as good as I do. You lost your father to orcs; and you hunted them down wherever you could find them. I lost my family to the Dunlendings, like so many of us in the Westfold. Now they took those twelve men, and we still don’t know what they did to them!” He shook his head. “No, Éomer-King, too much blood has been spilled. There has never been and there can be no peace with Dunland. The very idea is preposterous!” Again, he glared at Lothíriel. What in Eru’s name had happened? What had that witch of Dol Amroth done to the man he had known all his life?
Éomer’s voice was firm when he answered.
“But we will try for it nonetheless, and we shall try an approach which has never been taken: None of the great kings of the past had been willing to make concessions, not even my uncle. At the most, we granted the Dunlendings free leave to return to their homeland if they laid down their weapons. Never was anything done to change their situation, their misery that would force them to attack us again and again simply to sustain life! It is no wonder it never lasted.”
“You are not saying now that we are, in fact, the villains in this conflict, my lord?” A thick vein began to bulge on Erkenbrand’s left temple. He did not like the direction of Éomer’s words. Was the king questioning his own ancestors now? Valar, what were they coming to?
The brown eyes in front of him narrowed, and finally, although the younger man had made a serious effort at staying calm even under his marshal’s attacks, his anger began to visibly seep through.
“Do not twist my words around, marshal! There are no villains in this conflict, only victims. And it is about time that the victims see eye to eye about what has happened in the past, and it is also time for us to realise what an opportunity lies waiting in the future. If we continue on the path we have followed for centuries, it looks grim, but if the people of both our lands are willing to try the new way even though it has to be clear that peace won’t come easily, that it, too, must be fought for... then we may see the end of our problems. Today will be the day that sees us grant Dunland the first fair effort at peace in history.”
Erkenbrand’s eyes widened as the first spark of comprehension lit up his gaze. He turned ashen as he stared first at Lothíriel who sat in silent support of her husband behind him, and then back at Éomer. Shaking his head in utter rejection.
“No. No, you cannot mean that...! Sire, you cannot seriously consider -”
“We can, and we will let them into the Mark, marshal. Only a limited number at first, in a settlement they will have all for themselves to work the land, but under close supervision. I am no fool, marshal. I do not plan to erect a throne for them here at Meduseld, and I will not take more risks than I absolutely have to, but in order for the people to lay down their weapons, they must be able to sustain their lives, first. And now, this discussion is over. I will hear no further word –“
Erkenbrand took an angry step forward.
“Éomer-King, if that is indeed the way you choose, you should be aware that people might oppose you! The people of Westfold will not look favourably upon your plans of handing them over to the enemy, and no matter who it is that invades their land, they will fight them! Never will they tolerate Dunlendings on Rohan soil!”
Éomer’s gaze changed from mere annoyance to frost in a heartbeat as he regarded his man for a seemingly endless moment before he spoke, their eyes locked.
“Are you saying then that your people are not under your control, marshal? Or is it even worse and you want to indicate that you yourself would lead them into battle against my orders?”
Éomer had expected for the discussion to turn sour, but this was beyond even what he had expected in the worst case. He would have to stop the Lord of Westfold before he said something irrevocable he would have to punish him for. The bad thing about it was that he could absolutely relate to the man’s plight: He, too, was known as a man with a quick temper. He, too, had lived through times of frustration during the time of Gríma Wormtongue’s secret reign, when none of the facts he had brought to his uncle had been able to wake the feeble king from his terrible condition. Yes, he knew Erkenbrand’s state of mind all too well. Yet in his position, he could not afford to be too understanding or merciful; he had to demonstrate strength and confidence right from the beginning. If he permitted Erkenbrand to object to his orders or even openly threaten him, the trouble today would only be a faint hint of the resistance he would have to face from his people in the future. No, he had no other choice but to silence all opposition from the very start.
“Answer me, marshal. Which one will it be?”
Erkenbrand’s gaze left him to once again come to rest on Lothíriel, and his hands clenched into fists as he raised his voice against the queen, angrily shaking his head.
“What have you done to him? What have you done to our king? You want to see Rohan in ruins so that your father can come and take over what’s left without a fight? You –
“That will be enough, Erkenbrand!” Éomer stepped into his opponent’s view to shield his wife from the man’s relentless attack. “Gamling? You will accompany Marshal Erkenbrand to the dungeon and lock him up for disobedience and insulting the queen. If the marshal resists, you will assemble the Royal Guard and officially arrest him. Did I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sire.” The Chief of the Guard sounded clearly uncomfortable with the task he had been appointed.
Erkenbrand’s eyes widened as he stared at his ruler, both men glaring at each other. This was the last straw, the point of no return. He had lost the battle for power to the king and the witch from Dol Amroth. Some fell thing was going on in these halls, and why neither Elfhelm nor the others objected to Éomer’s ill-conceived ideas was beyond the esteemed warrior. Did they not see? Gamling’s expression spoke volumes as he stepped forth now. It was an awkward situation for him to be caught between two contradicting wills of iron.
“Marshal, I’m asking you to not make it worse than it has to be –“
Erkenbrand had no attention for the man. He wanted to seize the king and shake sense into him as his gaze tore into the darker eyes in front of him.
“You will not do this, Éomer! For Eru’s sake, come to your senses!”
“I am saying it for the last time, marshal: leave! Leave quietly, and with part of your honour intact, or resist and be thrown behind bars! The choice is up to you.” Éomer’s brows twitched meaningfully. Gamling was already motioning for the guards when the Lord of Westfold faced the queen for one last time, his face a mask of hatred.
“I do not know what you did to our king, but be assured that for as long as there is a single Rohirrim left to fight, the Westfold will never belong to Dunland!” He spit at Lothíriel and was pulled back by the guards as Éomer charged toward him in fury, all restraint gone. Elfhelm threw himself between the two fuming men and seized the king’s arms.
“I pity you.” From behind, Lothíriel’s voice could be heard over the ruckus, and it was not heatedly, but with distinct sadness and honesty. Éomer turned around, frozen. Lothíriel was standing, and her expression clearly underlined her words as she looked down on the fighting Erkenbrand, who suddenly halted in his attempts to wrestle himself free of the guards. His face froze.
“What?” Erkenbrand’s eyes were narrow slits.
“I pity you, marshal. Just like I would pity every man whose eyes had been blinded by the hatred in his heart.”
For a moment, the world hung frozen – to erupt in violence again as all barriers or restraints were swept away in a rush of red-hot fury. Screaming and swearing, the Lord of Westfold was dragged away…
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