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Rohan Ghost Story, A: 6. Mind Games
The darkness was almost complete. The blackness of the new moon lay like a silken blanket on the land and even the comforting faces of the stars were veiled from searching glances by a layer of clouds. Sky, mountains and the ground, all were one in the middle of the darkest night Elana had ever encountered.
Never in the nine winters since her parents had perished - her father in a warg-attack, her mother from a fever - had she felt so utterly alone. Sitting in the middle of nowhere with her back to the wall with no one to talk to, no one to confide in and no one to give her courage, she wondered whether she was really doing the right thing. Her family thought she was on her way to Edoras, when instead she was following Éomer's captors. They thought she would bring them help, and food - something they would especially need very fast with their winters supplies gone. What if something happened to her out here? What if one of the wargs that travelled with these nightmarish creatures patrolled the night and found her sitting here, unsuspecting? What if it was watching her right now?
'Nay, it isn't,' she admonished herself, stuffing the last bite of the flat cake she had taken along as provision into her mouth, her gaze wistfully resting on the small, flickering dots of fire she could see in the distance, the campfires of their enemies. How much she longed for a little more light and the comforting warmth of a campfire, but it would require an act of utter stupidity to build one herself for every foe to see. 'Stay calm. Áriel would smell them if they were close, wouldn't you, Áriel?' Elana turned her head and looked lovingly at the ghostly pale appearance of her horse peacefully grazing close by.
"Áriel?" Stretching her legs, Elana scrambled to her feet and walked over to her, hungering for a little warmth and comfort. The mare lifted her head at her approach, but stayed still and allowed her to lay her arms around her slender neck. Maybe she was feeling just as lonely as she did, out here in the darkness with none of her kin present, with no shelter from the falling rain and blowing wind. Winter was approaching fast, and with nothing to eat, how would her clan survive it?
Survival... she wondered how Éomer would spend the night. Would he even survive it? What if the arrow had hit something vital, or had been poisoned? What if he had lost too much blood? Her hands moved in circles over the muscular, warm neck of her horse, and the touch of a living, breathing creature soothed her anxious mind for a moment.
'He is a warrior, he is strong! One arrow cannot be enough to kill him. Of course he is still alive!' '- But you saw the things that captured him! What if they only took him with them as live food?'
Gods, what a disgusting thought! They had not killed her family, so they would surely not eat the king! Elana was dismayed by the awful thoughts that assaulted her from that pit of her very active imagination. It had to be the darkness that spawned them. Everything looked better in the daylight, and come dusk, she would ride in a great circle around their foes and make for the nearest settlement. After one day of following them, she was certain now that this was the place the darkly clad man and his army were headed. With luck, she could warn them and tell them to get ready to free their king.
'Will they believe me?'
Elana had no time to follow that thought further, for her horse had suddenly stopped grazing and stood now like a statue, listening, eyes wide, her flared nostrils drinking the wind. Elana's heart skipped a beat. What was ailing her mare? Desperately trying to pierce the darkness, she stood at the horse's side, ready to jump on the animal's back at the first sign of trouble. Her nerves tingled. Even then, if it was the wargs, it would probably be too late: she knew how fast the orc-wolves were. A good head start was needed in order to outrun them. So what now? Run? Not run? Standing there under the black sky, electrified and fully expecting to see the sparkle of the predators' eyes in front of her any second now, Elana almost screamed when her mare suddenly gave a short snort and then whinnied.
"Ssh, Áriel! Quiet!" she said, and then she felt it, too, the concussion of heavy steps on the ground, a rhythmic noise coming closer. Someone was approaching them fast. But who? Friend or foe? Before she could think of anything to do, her mare started forward with a muffled neigh, her neck proudly arched, just as a tall grey figure materialised from the blackness in front of her, unreal like a vision: A great, muscular horse, easily twice Áriel's size, was moving towards them in an majestic, powerful trot meant to impress; its grey hide marred with many dark stains. Threateningly throwing its massive head and then arching the strong neck, it finally rammed its hooves into the ground and - half rearing - came to a stop to taste their scents with widely flared nostrils, its eyes rolling menacingly, daring them to move closer. There was no rider on its back, nor was there a saddle, but it wore wearing an artfully crafted bridle Elana had seen before. The sight of the great stallion robbed her breath.
"Food, my lord. You need to eat!"
The pleasant smell of roasted meat woke Éomer from the daze he had been in ever since they had raised camp for the night. Not surprisingly, he was still chained to a tree, more hanging than sitting and unable to lie down even though he felt too weak to stay upright. All strength he had miraculously possessed after what had happened to him the night before, and which had enabled him to spend the long day on horseback without needing support, had deserted him now and left him feeling hollow and feeble as if in the claws of a terrible illness. His shoulder was a fiery pit of molten agony, and he felt feverish, too, his teeth clattering with cold one minute before the sensation of burning up flushed through his body and made him break into a sweat in the next.
It took a huge effort just to raise his head as the spit was once again held in front of his face. Somewhere behind it hovered Gríma's pale face. Not wanting to look at his adversary, Éomer shut his eyes tightly.
"Curse you, snake..." The king had meant to shout, but was unable to summon the necessary strength. Even a sneer seemed to be too much in the state he was in. He could not even spit on the offered meat like the night before, his mouth being dry as desert sand. Another shudder ran through his body. His constitution was deteriorating frighteningly fast.
"But you have to eat, my king. You see where your stubbornness has gotten you." Wormtongue shook his head in mock compassion. "Where should your strength come from if you starve yourself? The potion alone will not sustain you for long, I'm afraid."
"You're afraid?" Éomer opened his eyes, for a moment seeing two blurry Grímas in front of him. "What do you still need me for, anyway?"
"You won't have to wait much longer now to find out, son of Éomund. Tomorrow around midday, you shall know more." Gríma paused and held out the spit once more, but his prisoner just turned his head to the side and shut his eyes again, uttering an involuntary groan as the movement sent another bolt of pain through his side. "You don't want to eat. Well, I will have mercy on you for now, seeing how this whole business I'm putting you through has certainly damaged your appetite, but from tomorrow on, you will eat, or I shall have the food forced down your throat. Do you hear me, my lord?"
Éomer spared himself an answer.
"Let me see your shoulder again." Now his prisoner responded - by flinching. With a meaningful look at his Uruk-hai captains, Wormtongue moved forth and grasped the crossbow bolt closely above the angry red skin of his shoulder, forcing an anguished groan from the king as he slid one finger nail deep into the wound. Éomer fought against this torment, but was no match for the brute strength of the two orcs holding him.
"My lord, please - you must hold still! My aim is not to hurt you, but to determine whether the wound is already festering. If you move around like this, I will not be able to help you!" Gríma retracted the finger and held it in front of his nose, the pale blue eyes staring at his foe who - under his breath - muttered a few well-chosen curses in his direction before leaning back, utterly spent. Wormtongue faked a hurt expression."Ah, well... such is the fate of all healers, I guess, to be the subject of intensive swearing for only wanting to do good."
"You - the most poisonous viper of the Mark, a healer?" Éomer would have laughed had he found the strength in himself. Another flash of heat brought beads sweat to his brow.
Gríma raised a meaningful eyebrow.
"Yes indeed, my lord, believe it or not. I will heal the people of Rohan of their arrogance. Tomorrow, you shall witness what enlightenment I bring to your people, even if this can, of course, only be the first step on that never-travelled path to humility for them. Haughtiness of this magnitude is not lightly healed. Some subjects of the treatment need a rather strong dose, I'm afraid. Look at you!" He sniffed his fingertip and made a face. "I regret to inform you that your wound is not in a good state, my liege. I shall have to make the potion stronger this time, and you will drink it, or you will first lose that arm and then die an ugly death..." A meaningful pause. "I realise there are none of your kin around this time to threaten you with, except for yourself. Tell me then, Éomer of Rohan, do you want to die, or will you drink the medicine I am giving you willingly?"
His prisoner snorted in disgust. "You call it medicine?"
Gríma let out a hurt sigh.
"If I wanted to kill you, I could already have done so already. You know that yourself. In fact, I could kill you right now, if I chose so..." Again, he waved the half-empty skewer suggestively in front of the king's face. "And what a death that would be! Éomer, the eighteenth king of the Mark, descendant of the noble house of Eorl the Young, dying on a spit used to roast pigs ... and smouldering over the fire side by side with a delicate piece of meat from with his beloved animal companion..." Gríma clapped his hands in delight. "Yes indeed, this would be a song worth listening to. Alas, we do not have any witnesses here who would spread the word, so I am afraid we will have to postpone this procedure. Although I am quite sure my servants would much enjoy it, as well."
It took Éomer a great amount of self-restraint not to rise to Wormtongue's provocation, and not to look at the spit he was retracting now to commence eating. Was that really Firefoot's flesh that snake was sinking his teeth into?
'He will say anything to have his way with me,' he finally decided, fighting heroically against the surge of rage the dark counsellor's words had stirred up in him. 'He would even say it comes from the corpses of my dead men, but even he would not lower himself to that sort of beastly behaviour. He deems himself much higher than the creatures that serve him! He would not cannibalise his own kind!'
It sounded good. Rational. Yet he had not seen the grey stallion all day, not even in the distance... and Firefoot knew to follow his rider if circumstances ever separated them. The horses of the Mark were not even trained to do that, they did it out of their own, free will, the result of a bondage so strong, it would lead them – in case they and their rider were ever captured alive – to pursue either freedom or death before they would let an enemy ride on their back. But... where was Firefoot? Strangling the life out of this newly awakened fit of desperation, Éomer looked up again, his eyebrows forming a sceptical line on his brow.
"So you don't want to kill me."
His adversary shrugged, clearly enjoying his part in this unsatisfying guessing game.
"Not yet, at least. Maybe not for quite some time, but... I am not certain yet. It all depends, I'm afraid. On the situation... on my mood..." Grima's eyes widened suggestively, "...on the development of the next days... There are still too many unknowns. I may have to change and adjust my plan. I am afraid I cannot promise to relieve you of your pitiful existence anytime soon...". He came to his feet and looked down on the king. "What I can do is prepare some more of the potion for Your Highness. You look as if you may have use for it." His dark form disappeared into the night, leaving his prisoner to his dark brooding...
"Sshh, Firefoot! Shh... I will not harm you, you know that. Is this not why you are here, to look for comfort in the presence of Áriel and me? Come on, great horse of the Mark, be still. Do not fear me!"
Elana knew better than to directly approach the obviously terrified and deeply torn stallion, so she stood rooted to the ground, one hand held out in offering, hoping to talk her way into the mighty grey's mind. The way he was throwing his head and rolling his eyes told her that he would indeed attack if she moved his way too rashly… but he also wanted to approach her. He was not yet sure about her intentions, even though there had to be some part of his memory strong enough to shine through the veil of horror and death which had descended on him one night ago and left him wild with terror. Something had led him to her, and maybe it was not just the prospect of companionship with another member of his kind.
The young woman granted him the time to come to his own decision as she continued to let him hear her soothing voice. At the same time she took in his appearance and shivered. There was so much dried blood on him, he did not even look grey anymore! Certainly it could not all be his, and from where she stood, Elana could see nothing more than some minor scratches on his neck and broad chest, but the thought that it was perhaps Éomer's blood, or that of his men, made her tremble.
'Maybe it is orc-blood,' she tried to calm herself, still mumbling in a low voice without even recognising her own words. What colour would their blood be? She had never seen a dead orc, but there was something about these ghoulish creatures that told her that their insides must be black like a starless night.
"Do you not remember me, Firefoot? Do you not remember the one who nursed you and took you into her tent in that bitterly cold winter-night when your mother died after she had given birth to you? You were black then, a little black, wet, motherless foal. I did not hurt you then, and I will certainly not hurt you now. Do you not trust me?" One step in the stallion's direction, her eyes closely observing the grey's body language. How the ears flattened against his head in another threat, how he danced to the side with flying hooves, demonstrating the skill and strength of his terrible weapons. A single kick would be strong enough to break her bones. Out here, all by herself, it could possibly mean her death.
Behind her, Áriel imitated the dance and neighed, longing to be set loose, waking her rider from her contemplation. No, she would have to wait and hope that the king's steed would sooner or later come to his senses. There was no use forcing this. Turning away from him, she went over to her own horse and began to gently stroke the mare's delicate neck. What did it mean for her plan to have Éomer's horse at hand? A swifter escape, once the king made it onto Firefoot's back. Áriel wouldn't have to carry them both, making the task of outrunning the wargs virtually possible. Still… how to get to that point? She couldn't simply ride into the enemy's camp and tell Éomer to jump onto Firefoot's back! No, there was no use trying to come up with a solution. She still needed help, and as soon as the first daylight would greet the new day, she would go and find it.
Steps approached her from behind, hesitant, but already close. Elana smiled to herself, but didn't turn. Closer still. Warm breath on her neck, a feeling that brought a warm glow to her stomach. Slowly, she turned on her heels and – at last - laid her hands on the great grey's face, her fingers gently caressing his nostrils and mouth, and then moving up all the way to his ears, unaware that she had slipped into a low, soothing hum.
"Aye, my little one, you remember me, and you will help me to get your master back, will you not?
"I am very pleased with you, my king." Gríma gestured for his captain to leave after he had watched his captive take the potion. The king had taken it willingly enough this time, so the drug was already working. Blowing into his hands and rubbing them together against the cold, Wormtongue sat down on a rock opposite Éomer's position. "At last, you seem to have understood the urgency of this little game of ours... even though it still appears to be still against your taste."
This time, it did not take a huge amount of restraint on the king's part not to answer to his adversary's provocation. Éomer barely heard him, in fact, over the pounding of his heart in his ears as he fought once again to keep the vile liquid inside. He held no doubt that the Wormtongue could have made it easier for him to hold down, less revolting, but of course this was nothing but another part of his elaborate plan for vengeance. Éomer did not want to think about what the potion consisted of. Too many foul ideas came to mind, and they were probably all true, and more besides...
In the distance, a line of large, black silhouettes was moving in front of the campfire. The Uruk-hai were uncharacteristically silent tonight. Gríma's doing, likely. A Uruk's roar carried over a long distance and would inevitably attract enemies if it was heard, especially here, in the ever vigilant Marshal Erkenbrand's part of the Westfold. Just how had Wormtongue been able to acquire them? Where had they been hiding all these past months since the battle of Helm's Deep?
"I can see your thoughts on your face," his foe spoke softly into Éomer's thoughts. "You are wondering about my army. How I assembled it, since all of Saruman's Uruk-hai were believed killed at Helm's Deep, is it not so?"
The king did not answer, but again the Wormtongue's uncanny ability to know precisely what was going on in his head made him twitch. Gríma leaned forward as if he were about to share a particularly well-hidden secret with his prisoner.
"The truth is, they were. At least to my knowledge, all of the White Wizard's army was destroyed either by the Rohirrim or the tree-druids of Fangorn. The reason for my servants' presence is that they were never part of that army. They are my creation and absolutely loyal to me from the moment on they come into being. Not even my almost omnipotent master knew of their existence... just as he never knew that I had closely watched the procedure he had employed to breed his Uruk-hai to build my own breeding pits in the caves of the Misty Mountains."
Éomer's gaze returned from the distant campfire to him, and even through the deep daze his prisoner seemed to have already sunken into, Wormtongue saw the horror his words had invoked. He shrugged.
"Of course they are nowhere near as large and sophisticated as the ones at Isengard, but they were well hidden and out of your kinsmen's reach. When we return there, I expect that my servants will at least have another fifty ready to join these, and when I return to the Westfold in a month, I shall have an army of four hundred Uruk-hai and two hundred Dunlendings ready to lay your people's settlements to ashes. Marshal Erkenbrand will not be a hindrance to us. I know he is currently at Edoras to find food for his starving people, and upon his return, he shall find nothing but ruins and his people reduced to the same kind of beggars and thieves they have looked down upon disdainfully for generations. Maybe I'll capture him and let him live, too, for a while, to witness the spectacle of his people starving to death and as a guarantee that the Rohirrim will not attack us... just like you."
A dramatic pause lengthened as Gríma made up his mind to give away his big secret.
"Yes indeed, my king, listen closely, for this - at last - is my plan: I will let the people of the Mark stay alive for as long as they don't force me to dispose of them. I will ride through their villages with my servants setting fire to their winter supplies and killing their stock, and using you - their king - to demonstrate that there is nothing special about the heirs of Eorl, nothing that sets you apart from the other people of Middle Earth you look down on so haughtily. I will show them that they are nothing more than ordinary peasants who would have never been mentioned in songs or tales if not by sheer chance they had gained the friendship of Gondor. Gondor gave you this land. It is Gondor who secured your eastern borders for generations. It is Gondor who gives you the steel to make your weapons and armour with. Without the help of the blood of Númenór, you would still be wielding wooden clubs and spears instead of carrying mail and swords and lances and hard shields into battle. Saruman's army would have crushed you underfoot without the knowledge Gondor has taught you. So tell me, Éomer-king, what precisely is it that the people of the Riddermark are so proud of? What have you or your forefathers ever achieved by yourself?"
Éomer stared at him, unable to keep his thoughts focused. He knew that Gríma had just uttered some incredible insults about his kind, but pressed to repeat them, he would have failed. The words were racing in and out of his mind like a swarm of little silvery, slippery fish, dashing apart every time he stuck his hand into the water to grasp them. To his horror, he found that the leaden state had also overtaken his tongue, for he could not, for the life of him, remember how to use it. What was happening to him?
'Bastard poisoned me…' was the last conscious thought before he slipped into a state between dream and waking.
Wormtongue had followed the decline of his prisoner into the sub-conscious realm with keen interest. The potion had worked fast, and Gríma wondered whether he had made it a bit too strong this time. He did not want Éomer to end up raving mad; he wanted the effect to be subtle, and his prisoner still in possession of his personality while he whispered his deadly venom into his ears. The king's mind was now wide open for everything he wanted to plant within – guilt… despair… the feeling of having been betrayed by his own kin… Whatever he would come up with, would enter the king's memory as a fact, whether he told Éomer that he had killed Théodred with his own hands to seize the throne of Rohan, or that King Théoden had banished him for raping his own sister. Ideas were springing to mind faster than he could count them. He had created a void that longed to be filled with the most rotten images and emotions his twisted, dark mind could derive, and, wonderfully, afterwards his victim would not remember either having been spoken to nor having been drugged … and tomorrow, when Éomer's strength would diminish yet again, he would ask for more…
Smiling to himself, Gríma came to his feet and sat down next to the unmoving king of Rohan. Éomer's eyes were open, but glazed with the effect of the drug. He was waiting for new memories. After a moment of collecting himself, the dark counsellor set to work…
It was cold. And wet. The shabby old fur coat she wore had kept her reasonably dry and warm, but her limbs were nevertheless stiff from the night on the hard, half-frozen ground with nothing more to keep her comfortable than a thin woollen blanket. It had been neither the constant drizzle nor the silent throbbing of her aching body that had woken Elana. Rather, the sudden sensation of a great animal stepping up to her and blowing warm, slightly smelly breath into her face had finally roused her.
Smiling, she opened her eyes and found her mare looking at her curiously as if asking how she could still be sleeping when they had been awake for so long already. Heavier steps further away told her that the stallion was also still around. Very well. Time to get started. Time to quickly eat the leftovers from her flat cake and get on the road again.
"Áriel…" Pushing herself into a sitting position with one hand rubbing her eyes, the young woman squinted at the once again cloudy sky… and froze. The position of the sun… it could not be that late, could it? "Oh no…!"
Elana jumped to her feet, inwardly pleading that this was still a dream, but the wet drizzle in her face felt real enough, so real that the hard fact could no longer be ignored: the morning was long gone, and half the day had already passed – while she slept. When she had laid down for a moment during the endless night, close to morning, with the moon already starting to set in the east, she had not meant to sleep at all, only to give her exhausted body a chance to renew its strength for what lay ahead of her. She had meant to wait for dawn to ride hard and get ahead of the king's captors, to alert the village they were headed for, but somehow in the comfortless, desolate blackness closing in on her, the second night she had not slept, exhaustion had apparently overwhelmed her, and now she had lost half a day! As her searching gaze glided over plain in front of her, she noticed with a sharp pang of guilt that the army she had been following had already left, their fires obviously having been put out so long ago, they were not even smoking anymore. This was a catastrophe! Some help she was!
"Áriel, come here!"
Hastily, Elana gathered her few belongings from the ground and saddled her horse, in her head repeating an endless litany meant for the Gods to have mercy on her for her failure.
Éomer's unfocused gaze was directed at the horizon, following the movement of the better part of the Uruk-hai Wormtongue had sent ahead to clear their path. A host of one hundred of the nightmare creatures was now rolling towards the unsuspecting village of Iséndras like a flash flood on rocky surface after hard rain: violent, deadly and unstoppable, set to destroy everything in its path. The king shuddered and prayed that maybe, by sheer chance, Marshal Elfhelm and his éored would be there to prevent the worst, even if the situation did not leave much space for hope.
Grimly he reminded himself how unlikely it was to meet his able kinsman and trusted friend of many years as he watched the dark, menacing silhouettes running half a league ahead of them and putting more distance between themselves and the rest of Gríma's army by the minute. 'Elfhelm must be on his way back to Edoras. Winter is approaching fast, and his errand can not have kept him at Isengard and Helm's Deep for long. He will not risk being surprised by the first storms of winter on the plains.'
Éomer let his gaze sweep the broad valley in the southern fringes of the Ered Nimrais they travelled through, desperately looking for a sign, but with an already low spirit. The plan Wormtongue had finally chosen to reveal to him the night before was too cruel to think through all the way to the end. The people of the Mark were already paying a hefty price after the long war against both the White Wizard and Mordor, with many villages depending on outside help to sustain them with food. More hardships of the like Gríma planned to lay on them would inevitably lead to major famine – and death. There were hardly enough men left in the Riddermark these days to cultivate the vast fields, what would happen to their settlements if yet more people died of hunger was unthinkable. In his youth, while his parents were still alive, Éomer had once experienced what extreme hunger could do a people, how it reduced first the strength and then the spirit, turning honest and giving men into covetous and distrustful ones, and sometimes, even forcing them to become thieves and steal the things they needed to live from their fellow neighbours and kinsmen until finally, when all was lost and nothing left to find or steal, all that was left to do was to lay down and die.
Just shortly after he had turned nine, an entire summer without rain had left the fields dry and their crops dead in all of the Eastmark around Aldburg, their home. The harvest that year had been a major catastrophe, and the people had already known at the beginning of fall that not all of them would live to see the next spring. It had been a frightening experience, one he did not want to see repeated. One he would do all in his might to avert if it still lay within his power.
The main body of Gríma's advance army had already vanished from sight, and Éomer shifted his view again to the greatly reduced group of Uruk-hai that had been left behind to guard him and his adversary on their slower approach to Iséndras. There were only around thirty orcs left. Not an unstoppable force, but with the chains around his neck and wrists, his escape would still have to be the result of outside help. Thirty – plus one patrol warg – were still too many for him to handle, even if Gríma's potion had once again worked wonders on him, considering how feeble he had felt just the night before. If any opportunity presented itself to him today, he would be ready to seize it.
Settling into a slightly more comfortable position on the bare horseback, Éomer finally fell prey to the monotony of their approach again, allowing himself to slip into a daze to retain his strength for a time when he would need it. They had four leagues to travel yet...
"Éomer? Tell me that this is not true! Tell me this is a misunderstanding! Artlas told me that-"
"Do you have her?"
"Then bring her in, and mind your own business, Elfhelm!"
The older, broadly built warrior narrowed his eyes in disbelief – and he refused to leave, even as he motioned his men to bring forth the young, frightened-looking woman Éomer had ordered him to summon to his tent. What was that mud-blooded Rohir thinking to question him openly in front of his men? Éomer knew he had probably had too much ale and wine after that raging Midsummer-celebration, but that was no excuse for his second-in-command to reject his orders! So, maybe he was drunk, but he was still clear enough to know what he was doing, and as Third Marshal of the Riddermark, it was his well-deserved, damned right to exercise! Valar, he was risking his neck every time they went on patrol to rid the Mark of the marauding orcs that kept just coming at them from all directions, so these weak, whiny peasants could bloody well show a bit more of their gratitude.
"You cannot be serious about this, Éomer! You are not yourself!"
"And you, my friend, are forgetting your place!" A dangerous glint lay in Éomer's eyes as he slowly shifted his attention from his rebellious second-in-command to the girl his men lead into his large tent now. She had caught his eye when she had brought him the first cup of wine. A tight, buckskin tunic was artfully tied with leather straps over her womanly frame, a promise of the body underneath. She could not be older than twenty summers, with a delicately cut face, high cheekbones and deep blue eyes. She had the long, golden hair that was standard for the most women of the Mark, and curls that softened her innocent young face to an almost elven likeness. The hard work necessary to sustain life out here in the Westfold had given her a lean, strong body, and – for a Rohan woman – she was quite tall. Perfect, he had decided right there and then.
"My lord? You were asking for me?" Her voice trembled as she stood before him now, slender arms hugging her wiry frame. Behind her, Elfhelm's frown indicated very clearly that he did not approve of his younger superior's actions. Again Éomer locked eyes with his comrade-in-arms of many years in a silent battle. 'I am the king's nephew,' his granite-hard gaze said. 'You object to my will, and you will be punished. Do you understand me? The older man, his mentor for many years, narrowed his eyes, but remained silent. He was a seasoned, experienced warrior and knew what the punishment for mutiny against his superior officer would be.
"Marshal Elfhelm, take your men and leave!" Éomer's voice was firm and determined and there was a hard glint in his dark eyes as he spoke, a threat that only existed between the lines, yet a very potent one, not only meant for Elfhelm, in fact, as the faces of the two men further back told him that they did not like what he was about to do, either. Would he have to court-marshal them all for mutiny, or would they come to their senses?
Finally, after another long moment of silent wrestling of their wills, his old friend gave him the curt nod he had been waiting for, but the rigidity with which he finally turned on his heels to leave his superior's tent was an indication that he was still very much in opposition to what he knew would happen once he had left. Éomer hardly cared as he motioned the girl to step closer. "What is your name, woman?"
"Théandran, my lord." She kept her head lowered as she obeyed hesitantly, avoiding his gaze at all costs, and bent her trembling knees in a formal, stiff curtsey. "But-"
"Look at me!" Large pools of blue met his gaze – and widened slowly as she saw the clear intent on his face. "You are beautiful." he said, his hand roaming over her face, her quivering lips, and slowly tracing her cheekbone back to her ear. Gently his fingertips moved into her hair, playing with the golden curls for a moment before they glided further down on her neck. She trembled under his touch, uncomfortable in his intimidating presence.
"Please, my lord... I'm awaited at home. I cannot-"Her voice sounded husky and choked as if it barely fit through her throat. Narrowing his eyes, Éomer raised her chin with his free hand while the other one still rested on the back of the young woman's neck.
"Tell me, Théandran... are you afraid of me?"
"I –" She interrupted herself as the hand on her neck slid down to her shoulder blades and urged her forward. "My lord?" Breathless now, her eyes widened. Desire... or fear? "No, my lord, but my family-"
"-is safe, and they know you are safe here, too." Éomer was close now, his body next to hers, smelling her sweet scent, which did unbelievable things to him. His voice dropped to a deep, confidential whisper. The girl tried to step back, but he wouldn't allow it. "There is no place in the entire kingdom, not even Helm's Deep, where you would be safer right now than here with me... or do you think you would have harm done to you in the presence of the Third Marshal of the Riddermark?" He ran his other hand from her chin down her neck, briefly stopping in the pit of her throat before his fingertips traced the delicate arch of her collar-bone. The right one was still holding her tight, even though her reluctance was painfully obvious.
"No, my lord..." She shuddered and closed her eyes, breathing heavily. "Please... don't!"
"Ssh... don't speak..." he said, impatient, the building pressure in his lower body making it almost impossible for him to focus on opening the leather straps that held her tunic together. "I did not send for you because I wanted to talk." There now. It was out. His actions had spoken clearly enough before, but now he had also said it out loud, and Théandran responded. Again she fought to withdraw from him, panicking now, but again he held her back and instead crushed her to his chest with barely restrained force, annoyed by her continued resistance.
His fingers had opened the first straps and uncovered her shoulders as the tunic gave way. Her hands intervened and clasped his in a desperate attempt to stop him. "Please – this is not your right! You cannot do this!"
"You think it is not my right?" He shot her a furious look and forced her hands away. "Every day we ride out and risk our lives for you people. In every battle that we go through our blood is spilled, and now you want to tell me that it's not my right to take what I want in return? Where have you lived so far, that you don't know the way things work, woman?" With a fierce demonstration of his superior strength, Éomer forced her arms down. She was no match for him as he pressed his mouth hard onto hers.
For a moment, there was a hint of the sweet, ripe taste of wine, the notion of the exquisite softness of her lips, before it disappeared under his forceful assault to form a hard barrier. Her head jerked back, but he followed it almost faster than she could move away, not even hearing her terrified whimpering over the thunderous boom of his own pulse and the pressure building in his body, longing for release, tongue searching to penetrate the wall in front of it, his grip on her so fierce her arms would turn purple the day after. Éomer hardly noticed the impact as they stumbled against the door-post, interlocked in an awkward dance, the slight curvature of the body underneath his driving him mad.
Unexpectedly, her mouth opened – and when he plunged in she bit down hard on his tongue and lower lip, drawing blood. The sudden pain cut through his lust like a knife, and for a moment, surprise slackened his hold enough for her to free one arm. How dare she – she hit him squarely in the face and flung herself backwards, out of his grasp, but stumbled and fell, her tunic ripping in his still iron grasp, revealing her all the way to her waist. Huge blue, wet eyes stared up terrified as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, for the eternity of five heartbeats looking at the red stain there before he forcefully threw down the piece of leather he had ripped off and moved after her, now seriously enraged. Who did that wench think she was to deny him?
The girl screamed and frantically moved backwards on all fours now, but he was even faster as his fingers closed around her ankle and yanked her back, under him. She kicked, first at his face, then, below him, aiming for his groin, finding his inner thigh and forcing another painful grunt. Backhanding her came by sheer reflex and without restraint. His knuckles connected with her mouth full force. For a moment, she was stunned. As was he. He had never hit a woman before. Not like this. Not at all!
A small bubble of inactivity rose where they just stared at each other, he kneeling over her, she frozen in a backwards motion. Slowly, with a dreamlike quality, her hand touched her mouth - and came away bloodied. His strike had split her lip. Large blue eyes met his in utter confusion – and stark, naked shock.
For a heartbeat, words of regret shot through his head – 'I did not mean to…'. Then anger replaced it. At himself. Then at her, for making this so difficult!
"You see what you have done now?" he yelled into her face, beside himself. Her eyes were squeezed shut, for she could no longer bear to look at him, the image of the protector she had carried around in her heart for years turned into that of her worst enemy; her lower, bloodied lip quivering in voiceless terror. "This is your own fault!"
Her presence, the maddening softness of her body under him made it impossible to pull back. He had to have her! "Now quit fighting. I do not want to harm you further." He opened his belt. "What happens now is up to you..." The body underneath him shuddered, but her fighting spirit had finally been broken, and the suppressed, low sobs she uttered as he tore away the remainders of her clothing were the only sign she was still conscious as Éomer claimed his reward...
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