1. Deceit and Danger
In which Gríma reaches the point of no return, and Théodred's unexpected injury involves Éomer in a dangerous adventure.
The Hall of Theoden King stood high on a hill, for kings like to take the long view. Behind his throne there was a bannered wall. Behind the wall was a hidden closet. From inside it one could see nothing of the hall, but one could hear many interesting things.
Everyone has a special place that makes them feel at ease. Gríma's was the closet; so close to the throne - within earshot and yet out of sight. He came there even when the king's hall was quiet, as it was now. He did his best thinking there, and today's problem demanded his best. In fact Gríma thought that how he dealt with the matter of the parchment would determine his future.
A crack in the wall let sunlight in and Gríma inspected the parchment. It purported to request the king's son Théodred to visit Dol Amroth's steward at Erech-on-Morthond. The amiable steward would have been surprised, though. Neither he nor anyone else in Gondor had issued the invitation.
The metal seal with its device of Dol Amroth was authentic down to the nicks. The message itself spoke with just the right tone of deference and urgency. No prince of Rohan would be able to resist advising Imrahil's steward on the bloodlines of the fiefdom's horses.
And if Théodred does resist, thought Gríma, well ... Théoden becomes more malleable and confused each day. Doesn't he, my dear? And I know the powders to ensure it.
The letter, the seal, the drugs for docility – only one puzzle piece was missing, and that was Gríma himself. The puzzle of whether he would deliver the false message to Théoden and see Théodred go to his death.
Saruman, you led me like a dog, he thought bitterly, those days after Mother died. You pointed out the uses of this powder and that potion. Taught me to find my way in the dark by the stars. To read and write my letters. To serve Théoden's seneschal and then take his place when he died. To counsel a king. To believe you.
Saruman had indeed told Gríma a great many things both true and false, but the lie that caught him for certain had been this:
"If you do not help, Gríma, the simpletons of Rohan will allow the country to fall piecemeal to Mordor in your lifetime, and the Westfold – home of your only living kin – will be first to burn." The wizard turned his eyes on Gríma then and added, "Will you rise up, clever Gríma, to act on the stage of noble men, and gain renown in the Westfold and beyond?"
Well, here he was on the stage of his own undeniable choosing, locked in a spy hole with a message that lied, nobly making ready to commit ... what?
He grasped the parchment - Saruman's conspiracies made overt - and felt a fire start to burn in his lonely, divided heart: the anger of the clever who has been cleverly duped.
I curse you for using me, Saruman, to do your lying, murdering will.
"Then turn back," said a familiar voice.
Suddenly the closet was ten times colder than the winter day outside, and as sorrowful as an early grave. Frozen with fear, he felt a breeze, or a hand, sweep his brow. Only one person had ever done that. His mother.
"Esma? Can it be you?"
The voice said, "Depart now, my son. Find some place far away where you can be a hermit. Use your knowledge to heal. Teach others. Or else, lose your very spirit to an evil you cannot imagine. Please, my son! Flee now."
"I - Saruman will find me and kill me if I disobey," Gríma muttered. He thought of the fire pits he had seen in the caves of Isengard, and the shrieking Orcs, and men, who had been dragged to them for punishment - and shuddered.
In haste he turned his thoughts to the sweetness that Saruman had offered and life had withheld: power. Enough to rule a king and put fear in the eyes of others. Enough, maybe, even to rule that one who crossed his path every day and his dreams every night, like a careless temptation, like a reincarnation of Esma herself.
Gríma looked at the parchment and thought, If you can use me like a pawn piece, Milord Wizard, then you will not object if I use another for my wishes in turn. He did not laugh aloud in the closet, but he smiled.
"When Eowyn bids me flee, Mother, then I will consider it," he whispered.
Gríma left the closet through a trap door in the floor. He descended a ladder, followed a short passageway to another ladder, and climbed up into a woodshed behind the hall. The shed, passageway and closet were all there by the courtesy of Saruman. Back in the days when Thengel came from Gondor with his wife and infant son, Saruman generously offered to engineer some comforts to the hall that Fengel had left in such disorder. "A token of Isengard's friendship to Rohan's new king," he had said. Thus Meduseld boasted a large and efficient central fireplace and three small outbuildings at the back of the hall, suitable for storage, smithying, and even cooking. And unbeknownst to the Rohirrim, there was a secret room behind Rohan's very throne.
Leaving the shed carefully, Gríma returned to the hall in the usual way. He would see to it that Théodred went to Erech-on-Morthond to answer the note. And if he did not return, who was to say it was murder? Who knew what arrow might be loosed, or whose knife might slit his throat? Not Gríma. Gríma would be at the king's side, blameless. Safe.
Taking such comfort as he could from cold thoughts, Gríma gave the false message to Théoden. And his recommendation, of course, on how to act on it.
That is when they brought word that Théodred was in the stable yard, injured.
When Éomer was a boy, his parents died and he came to live at Edoras. He remembered the first day well because it had been his eleventh birthday. Théoden had walked with him to the lower stables and shown him a greying five-year-old horse with a black mane and tail and patient, thoughtful eyes. Éomer's own eyes had been sad but he did not weep. Théoden admired him for that.
"How beautiful he is!" said Éomer.
"His sire is Théodred's horse Thunder," said Théoden. "We call this one Cloud. He is a gelding. He likes carrots. Try giving him this one."
Cloud whinnied, ate the carrot, and looked with appreciation for more.
"Whose horse is he, Milord Uncle?" Éomer asked, uncertain whether he wanted to hope.
"Why, yours. You will feed and groom him, and you will get to know each other. Soon you will be handling and riding him." Théoden reached high up to a shelf and took something from a box. "You will need this helmet. It was Théodred's when he was your age."
"I'm to have Théodred's helmet?"
"It fits you well. See how long the horse tail is, how detailed the carvings? I hope you will wear it when we go riding together, for now I have two sons."
As Éomer flung himself into Théoden's sturdy embrace, he heard the words again: "Two sons."
Éomer loved him for that.
Now it was Éomer's birthday again, his twenty-third, and once more he was in the icy yard of the lower stables where Théodred sat in the cold mud, clutching his ankle.
"I have jobbed this ankle properly," he said, grimacing. "Thunder shied just as I was dismounting and I went flying. Then I came down on ice and twisted my ankle under me. By tonight it will be black with bruising. I cannot bear any touch of it. Maybe it is broken."
A serving man approached them. "Milord, Gríma says you are wanted in the hall."
Neither of them liked Gríma, for all that he had worked so hard for the old seneschal, gruff Éostor, until Éostor died suddenly at autumn's end, leaving Gríma to take his place.
'I come at my father's command, not Gríma's," said Théodred.
"Gríma says the king orders it."
The men nodded to the page and started up the hill with Éomer supporting Théodred.
" 'Gríma says,' " said Théodred. "I tire of those words. It is not like Father to let others speak for him."
"Well, we shall see what he wants. Then you must bind that ankle and pack it in snow. And stay off your feet. It will be a while before you can get around, brother."
Gríma's summons left neither of them in good temper. By the time they came to the hall Théodred was tight-lipped with pain and Éomer, with anger. Gríma's news of the invitation to Erech-on Morthond irritated him the more.
"Strange that they should want Théodred to come in winter," he said, fixing Gríma with an unfriendly stare. 'Spring starts the breeding season."
Gríma cursed himself for overlooking this - he would never be much of a horseman - and cursed Théodred too, for marring Gríma's plan. But he recovered quickly. "Since Théodred is injured Éomer must go in his place."
Théoden nodded, moving slowly as if unsure of the proper motion. "I agree," he said.
"No one should go!" Twenty pairs of eyes turned to Éomer at this shocking breach of propriety. No one living had ever heard anyone say "no" to the king.
Red-faced with dismay and embarrassment, Éomer continued in a lower voice. 'Traveling to Erech now is unwise. You said yourself yesterday, Milord, that the mountains are awash with snowmelt, nearly impassable."
If the court folk were startled at Éomer's shout, they were astonished at what happened next. Théoden, never known for his reticence, looked down as if confused. And then he turned to Gríma.
"You changed your mind, Milord," said Gríma. "The summons from Gondor will not wait."
Thinking, Has he always looked so old? Éomer tried again. "It is not fitting for me to go in Théodred's place. The matter is horses! Imrahil's steward will expect to speak to the king's son. If we wait until Théodred's injury is healed, the passes will be mostly free of winter and he can travel safely."
Gríma said, "Indeed it is not fitting." Éomer turned redder. "But it cannot be helped." He added, "Théodred must take more care in dismounting, or he will break two legs next time."
"Théodred needs no instruction from you, Gríma," Éomer said. "That is your way, to use part of the truth to suit your designs, and use it ill. Your words are as sly as a snake, Wormtongue."
Gríma never forgot that it was Éomer who gave him that name.
"Peace in the hall, sister-son," Théoden said. "Go now."
Éomer bowed, turned away, and stamped out of the hall, soon followed by a limping Théodred.
"It is ill to leave with hard words between you and Father," he advised his young cousin.
"He said, 'Go now.' I have been disrespectful once today, and that is enough. I will depart before I say something else I will regret. A curse on my rudeness!" He picked up a piece of broken wheel rim from the ground, looked at it, and then threw it hard against a wall. "After shouting at the king, how could I press my point?"
"At least take your squire. Where is he? You cannot pass through the mountains alone at the end of winter. All it needs is for you to break your leg, and then you are a dead man."
"He is somewhere in the city, ailing, and I am in no mood to wait. I will take care in the mountains, brother. Once through them and down into Gondor the weather will be fine."
A groom led Cloud to Éomer and Théodred watched him mount in an easy motion. As always, on horseback Éomer looked as if he might be part horse himself, so much was he at one with the beast.
"Get provisions at Dunharrow, will you," he said, handing up Eomer's cloak. "Erech-on-Morthond is some miles south of the Erech Stone. Say to Imrahil's steward that Théoden and Théodred send their best wishes and their best horseman."
"And you, my brother, must see to the king. He looks unwell."
The cousins parted with affection. The year was 3014 of the Third Age.
1. See "Everyday Life in the Viking Age," Jacqueline Simpson, "Life on the Land," pages 52 and 53, for illustrations of small buildings built around a Viking longhouse, such as Saruman might have built for Thengel. Also there are illustrations of a hall that must have been P. Jackson's model for Meduseld.
2. Gríma began to exert influence over Théoden in 3014. JRRT, Unfinished Tales, The Battles of the Fords of Isen. That Gríma was once Théoden's seneschal and used Saruman's potions on him is my invention.
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