3. Chapter Three
First off I think I owe you all an apology. This fic seems to have taken on a
life of its own, it seems. First I make it look like I'm going to write an
Aragorn/Éowyn fic, then I throw Boromir's name into the second chapter . . .
but I was having so much fun torturing Éomer that I decided to write another
chapter of it, and still no Boromir. However, Boromir is going to be in the
next chapter, I promise. This seemed to be the logical next step, though, as I
refuse to believe that Éowyn and Éomer, and other Rohirrim not loyal to
Wormtongue were simply sitting there waiting for Gandalf to show up and fix
Théoden for them.
I came back to wakefulness slowly, disoriented. It took me a moment to remember where I was, and why I was lying on a pile of prickly straw instead of in my own bed. The memories I had of the previous day were not pleasant, and I lay for some time quietly, simply allowing myself to remember as the weak sunlight slanted in from the high window at the end of the corridor.
And watching my brother pace. He had not slept this night, that was obvious. Nor did he realize yet that I was awake. The cell was small, barely wide enough for two of my brother's long strides each way. Still he did not stop, moving restlessly across the cell. If I knew my brother, he had kept himself so occupied for a while, if not the entire night. It is always possible to gauge Éomer's mind by watching him pace, if one knows him well enough, and I had seldom seen him so disturbed by anything. He moved swiftly back and forth, in quick, jerky strides, his eyes fixed on the floor.
He stopped as his eyes lit on me, halting abruptly. There were deep shadows under his eyes. He did not look tired, though. He looked tense, alert, every inch of his tall frame fairly vibrating with suppressed energy that could have no outlet. He looked ready for battle, ready to strike.
His face was that of a man who has long chased his own thoughts round in circles, yet found no solution and no peace. When he spoke, his voice was strained.
"I am a fool."
I pushed myself up on one elbow, sitting up slowly and brushing straw out of my hair. I felt curiously exhausted still, and so drained from the emotions of the previous day that I was able to look at him with some semblance of calm.
My brother was anything but calm. I had never seen his face so haunted, in all the years Wormtongue had been at Edoras. I drew my knees up to my chest, clasping my hands around my knees and resting my chin on my hands.
"Will you not sit down and rest awhile?" I asked him finally, as he continued to pace. "You must be weary."
He hesitated, but eventually he lowered himself to sit across from me with his back against the stone wall. Still he did not look at all relaxed. His eyes ran constantly over the walls and door of the tiny cell as though seeking any means of escape. Finally he turned back to me.
"This is why you sent him away." His voice was flat.
There was no need to ask of what he spoke. I only nodded.
"You knew, then, that Wormtongue desired you."
"Aye," I said softly.
His eyes blazed in sudden anger. "And you said naught to me? For seven years you have kept this secret from me!" I said nothing, only looked at him. And so, once again, I have hurt one whom I love dearly. Would that there had been some other way! His voice dropped, but still I almost flinched from the anguished fury in his tone. "Why?"
I forced myself to look at him, to meet his eyes. "For the same reason I kept it from Boromir," I answered softly, sadly. "Tell me now--and truly, Éomer--what would you have done if you had known?"
He struck one hand violently against the stone floor. "I would have handed you his head upon my spear!" he said fiercely. "Need you ask that? I would have protected you against any who sought your hand against your will! Can you truly have doubted this?"
"I never doubted you, Éomer," I said, shaking my head. "Believe that, I pray you! I knew well you would have challenged him, and you would never have won, not against all the King's guard. Nay, they would have slain you right there, and then who would have protected me?"
"Seven years ago the worm's hold on Théoden was not so strong!" he grated. "If you had told the King of this then--"
"There would have been no way to prove his intentions," I said. "Wormtongue would only have used it to make me look the fool, and to get you out of his way all the sooner."
"I cannot believe even now that the King will see you wed to this wretch!" He sprang up from the floor and began to pace again. "Surely if you told him all--I cannot believe he can have fallen so far!"
"Can you not?" I asked, softly. "That is because you have been ever away upon the East marches. You have not watched as daily the worm's hold over Théoden grows stronger. But surely this influence can be felt even in the field now, especially in the East! You have watched the Shadow growing there, I know, for I have heard the reports you sent back. Did you not see how far Wormtongue's reach had spread, when reports of the Enemy's preparation brought no orders to you for answering mobilization?"
"The King loves you as his own daughter," he said finally. "That cannot have changed."
"He loves you as his son," I pointed out, "yet at Wormtongue's orders he is prepared to see you put to death." He was silent at this. "Still Théoden shall never have to force me into marriage, for I have already assented, and he will not gainsay my choice of husband."
"How could I not have seen it?" He swung round, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. "How can I have been so blind, to what was in front of my face for so many years?"
"You were far from here," I reminded him gently. "How many nights, this past year, have you slept at Edoras? You have not watched him day by day, as I have, nor did you know what things to look for."
"He has planned perfectly for this!" A flash of self-disgust crossed his face. "And I was so easy to trap! It is I who have brought this choice upon you."
"Nay, Éomer," I said, looking up and holding his gaze. "You did what honor and prudence dictated, for the safety of our land and our allies! If such brought about the wrath of our lord, then you have only shown the greater courage for daring to do what you saw was right. You have accomplished much in spite of Wormtongue. The matter of my unwilling marriage is a small price compared to that."
"It is not small to me!" he growled. "Nor will I hear you say it is so."
Oh my brother! I thought with a pang. If I would seem to reject your love and your protection, do not think the offer does not warm my heart when I so desperately need it! At least I know I am not alone yet, here amid the ruin of our house.
Before I could reply, footsteps sounded from the corridor. Éomer froze, one hand going for a sword he no longer wore.
A familiar voice calmed my fears, as I heard Elfhelm the Second Marshal. "Speak of this to no one, and warn us of any approach." And the guard, the same who had been on watch last night, murmured assent. Éomer let his hand fall to his side, but he did not relax appreciably even as the tall Rider came to the bars.
Second only to Erkenbrand among the hosts of the Rohirrim, Elfhelm had succeeded to Théodred's command upon my cousin's death, much to the consternation of Wormtongue. A veteran of many campaigns, he had a reputation for a loyal heart and a level head, both of which were too scarce in Edoras lately. A man of few words, who seldom allowed himself to be hurried in times of peace, he could move faster than a striking snake in combat, and had a reputation for making himself everywhere at once. Two decades of service had won him a respect in the court and in the military that even Wormtongue dared not yet challenge openly. Still, it had been easy enough for Gríma to keep both Théodred and Elfhelm constantly upon the borders, where they could not hinder his designs. Only Théodred's death had brought Elfhelm back to Meduseld for a brief time, to pay his respects in person to his King and the father of his friend.
There was a faint flicker of startlement in his eyes when he saw me, and I smiled faintly. It was no easy thing to surprise Elfhelm.
"My lady." When he spoke, he was his usual unflappable self. "I did not expect to find you here."
I rose and came to the bars of the cell. "I am here of my own decision, and free to depart at any time," I assured him, reaching out through the bars to take his hand. He raised mine to his lips. "I have not yet had time to welcome you with fitting words, or to thank you for returning to us in this hour of grief."
He bowed his head briefly. "I am sorry it is such an occasion that brought me hither, but no less glad at your presence, lady," he replied. "But we must put aside courtesy for more serious matters." His gaze was penetrating. "I have come home to find you both imprisoned, though you, lady, may still be free to walk about the hall."
So it was now common knowledge, my decision to wed. From his words I guessed Théoden had not questioned the idea, and I fought against a new sense of betrayal. "You have heard aright," I replied levelly.
He looked from me to Éomer, who scowled at these words, and back to me. "The guard here now is friendly to us all, but I cannot risk staying too long. Therefore we must plan quickly." He folded his arms across his broad chest, seeming to gather his words. "You must know, lady, that the King has not long to live."
I nodded, feeling my throat tighten. It was one thing to fear that naught but death would release my uncle now. It was another to hear it from the lips of one such as Elfhelm, who was certainly not one to worry unless the situation were grave indeed, and who had been loyal to Théoden all his life.
"Then you must also know that it is not only lust that draws the Wormtongue's eyes toward you. With Éomer imprisoned and Théodred slain, you are the only heir Théoden has." Again I nodded. "It is not hard to guess how he gained your consent. And while I will not fault you for it, our position grows more precarious as his grows more secure."
"I had no choice," I said. Éomer looked up fiercely and would have contested that answer, but Elfhelm continued. He spoke slowly now, almost reluctantly.
"I have served Théoden King all my life," he said. "And I have known him to be a brave warrior, a generous and shrewd leader, and a truly great man. I know not what power is in this creature who has taken his pride from him, but the Mark must free herself of the Wormtongue's grip even if the King will not, and quickly." He held each of our gazes in turn. "Our one advantage lies in this: if he believes his position secure with the Lady Éowyn his wife, he may become less cautious."
My eyes narrowed as I realized his purpose in coming here, and I darted a quick glance down the corridor. "You speak of treason," I said quietly.
"I speak of honor," he corrected. "I speak of oaths made by the House of Eorl, of which you two are heirs--oaths of alliance to the lords of the White Tower of Gondor. I speak of courage, to stand up for the right, against friend as well as foe, if our friends follow craven counsel. I speak of prudence. Even you, lady, must feel the Shadow in the East." I listened solemnly, knowing the truth of his words though I wished I could deny them. "And yes, I speak of treason. For though I do not know if he serves Isengard or Mordor, I know Gríma Wormtongue serves some other master, one who would delight to see us fall."
The air in the cell suddenly felt close, almost stifling. Éomer's face was pale and tense. "Long I have suspected this," he said at last. "Do you say that there is some way we may prove this? Or do you propose to remove him by force?"
"Even were it possible to prove his allegiance, the King's mind is so twisted by his deceit that I fear he would not understand such proof." His face was still, his eyes sad. He seemed calm as ever, but it was clear the death of Théodred had affected him. There was a clear resolve in his voice that I had heard in few men's since before Gríma came. "We cannot harm Gríma without risking the King's wrath," he said. "In this matter I fear we must consider the two allied, and there is little hope Théoden may ever be freed. Too little for us to stake the security of the Mark on it."
"You cannot be suggesting--" Éomer began, but Elfhelm held up a hand.
"I will not lay hands on the King himself, nor allow any other to do so," he said. "Nor could any of us justify our actions to the people, if we seized power from the rightful King by force. We must wait, and at the moment of Théoden's death be ready to slay the Wormtongue, before he can take the throne. It must be done swiftly, and it must not fail, else we risk more bloodshed and possible civil war."
Éomer wrapped both hands around the bars. "Would it not be better to delay the marriage? Then Wormtongue can have no possible claim to the throne, and as soon as the King dies he can be arrested for his crimes."
Elfhelm looked at me. "The only way the marriage can be delayed is at the word of the Lady Éowyn," he said. "And if I judge aright she will not give it."
"I will not," I answered. I met Elfhelm's gaze steadily. "In the coming war we will need all our able commanders, and my brother is too valuable to lose." He inclined his head slightly, as if to concede it was my decision to make.
"I would not lay this upon you if I saw another way," he said gravely. "But it may be for the best if you endure this a little while. Indeed, you may be our best hope for a swift and peaceful coup."
My eyes widened slightly. "Indeed," I agreed. "A meek and docile wife he may think me, but maybe he will regret allowing me so close to him, when mine is the hand that strikes him down."
Éomer's face was dark, but Elfhelm was nodding slowly. "You would have opportunities as his wife that none others would have."
"Is there no other way?" said Éomer furiously, rounding on me. "Is there no other way, that we must allow the wretch to lay his filthy hands on you?"
I looked to Elfhelm, but he made no response, leaving me to answer. Never, I knew, could I allow Éomer to see how that thought terrified me. Still I had no choice, and we all knew it. To refuse would be to see Éomer die, and miss what might be our best chance to rid this land of the corruption of Wormtongue.
"There is no other way," I said, softer than I had intended.
Elfhelm did not like the idea either, I could see. "I would not ask this of you, lady, if there were any other way," he said finally. "But you still hold the King's trust, and the Wormtongue will suspect you less than myself or any of the King's guard."
Éomer's face was white with rage, and his hand, clenched around iron, trembled. But his voice was steady as he asked, "How many of the guard remain loyal to the House of Eorl?"
"Gríma has had the time he needed to remove the most outspoken of his enemies," Elfhelm replied. "Those who serve him in the palace serve him out of fear. If we are successful, they will be no threat once he is dead. If we fail and our plans are revealed . . ."
"But it is Wormtongue who always insists that a large force of Riders remain near Edoras," Éomer said slowly. "My own men will support me if they are nearby. If we can get the word to Éothain and Léof . . ."
Elfhelm was shaking his head. "Unless he is a fool, Gríma will replace you with a man loyal to him, and not allow your second to claim the command. Or, if that cannot be done, with one so incompetent he will be useless to us. We cannot count on his support, whoever takes your place."
"Can you not take Éomer's command yourself?" I asked him. "With your reputation, even Gríma could not dispute it."
"I have stretched my reputation as far as it will go, even in retaining Théodred's command," Elfhelm replied gravely. "Even you, lady, cannot know how far the Wormtongue's reach extends in the military."
"And your sword is needed at the Isen," Éomer said. "Éothain is loyal to me, and so are all my officers, to me and to each other. If we can alert them in time, they can take care of whoever Wormtongue puts in command, and still be here to support us."
"We shall have need of their support, if anything goes wrong," Elfhelm warned. "In this we trust much to your estimation of your Riders' skill and loyalty. But you know your men best."
"They will support us," Éomer said firmly. Elfhelm nodded.
"Then I shall have a message sent to your second," he said. "I shall be at Edoras but a few days more, for my own men miss me at Isen. Send word to me if the situation changes, or the King grows worse, by any messenger you can trust. I will not come here again, for no one must suspect me of conspiring with one convicted of treason, or you of ambition for the throne. If the Lady Éowyn visits her brother few will think it strange, but you must exercise caution."
He signaled to the guard, who unlocked the door. Éomer looked like he wanted to say something, but he only clasped my hands tightly.
"Stay safe, sister," was all he said. I wanted to tell him not to worry, that I would be all right. But there was nothing I could say that would comfort him. I caught his hand to my face, blindly, then turned and slipped out of the cell.
"If Wormtongue decides that Éomer is a threat to him," I said softly to Elfhelm as we walked up the stairs from the dungeon levels, "what then?"
The Marshal was silent awhile, and I did not need to look at him to see he was troubled. "To save Éomer then we would have to risk killing the King ourselves, before the Wormtongue could kill Éomer. And I have taken oaths, oaths to serve him and protect him." His voice dropped, and for the first time in my life I saw him uncertain. "When one's liege lord proves faithless, where can honor be found? Is it the greater dishonor to betray a faithless lord, or to serve him blindly?"
I could make him no answer, for the same question had tormented me for years. I had never known Elfhelm well, but Théodred had spoken of him often, and trusted him. So had the King, before Gríma came, and in my childhood he had been at Edoras more often, before war called my cousin and his men away more often. I had been impressed by this strange man's calm and self-assured demeanor, as a man who knew himself and his duty.
There was little of that calm assurance now, and it frightened me more than a little to see it go. If a man like Elfhelm, who Théodred had said would not be disturbed if confronted by the Enemy Himself, was doubtful, what chance was there we should be successful?
"Where duty calls in two directions, a man must judge as best he may." It surprised me that I was able to speak so calmly. "When the great neglect their charges, the lesser must fill their places if they can, and the more honor to them if they are successful."
"And if we fail, we shall be executed for our temerity," he replied. "But honor will matter but little when all are dead. If we cannot save Éomer," he continued, and his voice was the more intense for being barely above a whisper, "you must be prepared to take the throne. The people know you and love you, and they will follow only one of the House of Eorl, whether man or woman. And you have the strength for it, I think."
Do you believe that I do? I asked him silently. For I do not know that I believe it. He bowed very low and kissed my hand. Then, in a gesture that caught me completely off guard, he gripped my shoulders gently and pressed his lips to my forehead.
"May it never come to that," he whispered. "It tears my heart to leave a lady so brave and loyal unprotected; nay, to deliver her into the enemy's very hands, for there are none in Edoras you might look to when I am gone, even if you would! Understand that I like this no better than your brother does, and I would spare you if I could. But we live in times that allow us no choice."
His eyes were alight, clearly torn, and I was strangely moved. As an adult, I understood how much of the surety I had admired in this man as a child came from his loyalty to his King and his commander, and the knowledge of their loyalty to him and to our home. Now Théodred was dead, and the King had abandoned him to fend for our country without the support of the throne. He looked like a man who had discovered the beliefs by which he had lived his entire life no longer held any meaning to anyone else.
And I knew, too, that there was a part of this man that would always see me as the golden-haired child who had once sat on Théodred's knee, and that every fiber of his body revolted at the thought of sending me to Gríma's bed.
But I was a child no longer, even if he had been away too long to watch me grow up. To live in Meduseld with Wormtongue is to grow up swiftly, and I knew more of treachery than he did, for all he was twenty years older than me. Though chivalry might not be dead in all the Rohirrim, there were those things against which no man could protect me. I had learned that painful lesson seven years ago.
"I shall send you word as soon as I may," I said, drawing myself up and trying to look stronger than I felt.
He let his hands drop to his sides. "I go to the front at Isen where my men wait for me. I leave you to fight alone, on a front far more deadly. You carry the hope of all Rohan, and maybe Gondor as well." He bowed again, very low, then turned away. I stood watching him until he was out of sight, feeling a large measure of my own calm and security leaving with him, as it began to dawn on me just what we had agreed to attempt.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.