The King had not finished that thought when the woman looked up, and the wailing sound just like the sobbing were chocked in her throat as her eyes found him. Accusation lit up her bright blue gaze and pierced Éomer's heart.
'She knows who I am. She knows what I did.'
He had to look away, and his face flushed with a shame so deep, it scorched his innards. Oh yes, the people had anything but forgotten him, and how could they, after his monstrous deed? Was the woman still around? Would he have to look in her face? The king cringed at the prospect. Of course she would still be here. And when she saw him, she would point her finger at him and shout out his sins for all to hear. Maybe she would walk up to him and hit him! Maybe - maybe he ought to be thankful for Gríma's massive army; maybe – without their presence - his kinsmen would stone him! But then again – maybe death was the only way still open to him to restore at least some of his dignity. Maybe, if he asked for forgiveness and then killed himself… maybe his place in Rohan's history would mercifully be left out in the songs of future generations. Maybe they'd name someone else eighteenth king of the Mark because the one they had for a few, brief months would put the entire kingdom to shame if his deeds and reputation became known.
He was glad to leave the woman behind as Wormtongue urged his horse into motion again and the chain around his neck pulled Éomer forward. The burning sensation of her gaze on his back followed him all the way to the next corner.
Yet his anguish only grew as they slowly advanced, for there were more people moving all around them the more they proceeded towards the centre of Iséndras. More voices and the notion of activity – children running, women and men shouting and fleeing from them towards the marketplace – from where the terrifying roar of the flames and a wave of heat wafted. The menacing shadow of Wormtongue's advance-army was clearly outlined by the blazing fire in the background as a dark silhouette made it's way down towards them. The warg-rider. His ferocious mount snapped at a woman who dared to cross its path on her frenzied flight into her hut and barely missed her. The sound of ripping fabric could be heard, accompanied by a short, terrified shriek, and then the woman had reached the sanctuary of her home and slammed the wooden door shut behind her.
"They're waiting for you, master," the orc snarled and spit in disgust. "We killed only those who wouldn't stop opposing us." His words sent a shudder down Éomer's spine.
"Very well, Âshgnak. I am pleased with you. Expect a reward once we are done with the Riddermark."
"You are too friendly, master." The creature turned its mount around and led the way to the waiting crowd, closely followed by Wormtongue and the stumbling king.
They were getting close to the site of the most destruction, close enough to feel the heat and smell the biting smoke. By the time the entire army had reached the marketplace, the barn had become a blazing inferno of hellfire and the flames licked hungrily at the surrounding houses, with the first thatched roofs already catching despite the villagers' frantic efforts to keep the fire from spreading. Those who were not involved in the activity stood unmoving in the middle of the great open place, forced to welcome the invaders by Gríma Wormtongue's threatening minions behind their backs. The atmosphere thickened.
Smoke bit into Éomer's eyes and lungs and made him cough, but even though his sight was blurred and his eyes watering, the king spotted a group of men among the crowd that looked more furious than frightened, their expressions and weaponry giving them away as the village's soldiers. Apparently the unexpected attack had robbed them of their horses, but they were armed nevertheless. Hands were clasped around the hilts of their swords or spears, and bows were pointed in the direction of the arrivals as the enemy spilled into the place like a foul, black flood. The king's heart went out to his brave, yet hopelessly outnumbered kinsmen. They were looking death straight into the eye, yet pride and honour kept them from backing down even against overwhelming odds. His gaze found their captain, a brave, stout man he knew from personal experience to be a valiant fighter, and a silent prayer went to the Valar. He hoped that the man would be sensible. Sometimes, there was no sense in pride. It was a lesson Éomer himself had taken great difficulties to learn, but an important one. Nobody would be helped by it if the lives of good warriors were needlessly thrown away. One had to pick the right occasion to make one's stand. But of course recognising those occasions was something that could not be learnt, only felt. It was a matter of instinct. And Éomer's instincts as a warrior told him that this was a lost cause.
Yet there was also the knowledge – despite the hardships history had had in store for his people ever since the first days of the Mark – that their endless courage in the face of overwhelming odds had always been the one defining character-trait which enabled the descendants of Eorl to prevail. The last, and maybe most encouraging proof being the recent battle at Helm's Deep. In almost all the major battles their songs and sagas told of, the Rohirrim had faced impossible odds, and yet through their skills, determination and fierceness as well as their great will they had endured. Of course the captain of Iséndras would not shrink from the challenge Gríma Wormtongue's army presented to him – it simply wasn't in his blood. Very soon, if no miracle happened, blood would be spilled...
Éomer did not know what exactly he intended by staring at the broadly-built man, trying to catch his attention. A moment later, he had it, when the captain's gaze glided over the rows of the intruders – and found him. The king tried to put it all into his eyes despite the huge surge of shame he felt welling up in him.
'Let them pass through! Do not attack them! If you attack, they will burn down the village and the blood of your people will saturate the ground! There will be a time for revenge, but it is not now!'
The blue eyes widened in recognition – and disgust – and before Éomer could cast his glance to the ground, he saw a string of muttered curses leave the man's lips before he turned his head to speak to the man next to him, where the reaction was repeated. He had been identified! The sting was sharp and the pain worsened with the rising of angry mutters and shouts all around him. They had spotted him. Even in his deranged state – without his kingly regalia, mud and blood-caked and drenched to the bone - they knew who had returned to Iséndras in spite of his disgrace, and his accursed name was passed through the crowd in low whispers and mutters. All the evil his foe had done to Eomund's son before was nothing compared to the bottomless guilt and sudden fit of extreme self-loathing the crowd's reaction stirred up in him. For a moment, Éomer wished that someone would jump forward and finish him off: behead him, or even gut him, he didn't care. Whatever they'd do to him, he deserved it. All he wanted was get away from this awkward situation, no matter how... a feeling that turned into sheer agony when he spotted a familiar face among the folk in the first rows. He froze. Was unable to escape the accusation engraved into the young woman's delicate features. A surreal coincidence had it that Wormtongue chose this moment to speak.
"People of Iséndras! Listen to me!"
For the first time in his life, Éomer was glad to hear Gríma's voice. It took the focus off him for a moment, but there could be no doubt that it would return. The noise died down to the point where only the angry roar of the fire could still be heard. Gríma paused and let the moment build before he continued. Yet for the life of him, Éomer was unable to break from the young woman's piercing stare. 'Why did you return?' it asked him. 'Because you wanted to see the misery you caused? Are you pleased with yourself now, my lord?'
"I know you must be afraid," Wormtongue meanwhile continued from the safety of his horse. A circle of Uruk-hai shielded him from the listening, angry crowd. "You do not know what hit you. I understand that you must be wondering why this horrible attack happened to your village, what you have done to deserve a punishment so severe and who in fact it is that is punishing you!"
Another meaningful break. Despite his misery, Éomer felt like jumping onto the counsellor's steed and snapping the worm's filthy neck. All it would take to bring the White Wizard's vulture within reach was one unexpected tug at the chain that Gríma had casually wrapped around his wrist. The way it looked to Éomer, its end was not even secured to the pommel of his saddle. There was still one more chain to get rid of, though, but the Dunlending who held it appeared to be distracted by the surrounding crowd. If he brought Gríma down… the Uruk-hai would kill him, but Éomer did not care. Maybe this was a way to redeem himself. Maybe his people would forgive him if he killed their attacker without caring what would happen to himself. And maybe… being slain in the course of this deed would not be the worst thing that could happen to him. Because even if he somehow, by some miracle, would be able to return to Edoras, the city of his forefathers and noble kings of Rohan, how on earth could he ever again find peace of mind or forgiveness in himself for what he had done? Wouldn't it be infinitely better to sacrifice himself for his people?
But he could not move. Nor could he breathe, because still that woman's gaze had him pinned like a horse that had run into a pike during an attack, and the pain was just as sharp. Yes, he wanted to die.
"My name is not important" Rohan's bane interrupted Éomer's thoughts, the pale, merciless gaze locked on the village's captain. "I am merely the instrument of others, wrath personified, of those who are too weak to avenge themselves on you for decades and centuries of oppression and murder. Of having their homes destroyed and their children die of hunger because you decided that they were not good enough to share this land with you, that their worth was less than yours because their hair and skin were darker than those of Eorl's heirs. It was reason enough for you to violently chase them away from the lands they had inhabited for as long as they could think, back to a time when the Riddermark was still named Calenardhon and belonged to the realm of Gondor. It was reason enough for you to harass those who were unfortunate enough not to look like you because they did not have the fortune of being born a thoroughbred Rohir! Whether men of other races raped their mothers or whether they sprang from an unlikely love between a man and a woman of different race was of little concern to you! They could try as they might, they would never be more than filth in your eyes! At best, you made fun of them, and they ended up bein the perpetual subjects of your clean-blooded, fair-haired children's cruel jokes. But it also was not below you to punish them even much more severely for what they could not change, too." Gríma exhaled. Again his gaze found the captain's – and held it. "I am here today to teach you respect for those other people you look down on so haughtily, just because you possess what they have not! You look upon them as lowly beings, no better than orcs, as thieves, while you never understood yourselves what it feels like having to feed your families even in times of famine. But fear not, proud Rohirrim, for I am here to teach you that valuable lesson and heal you of your delusions of grandeur once and for all!"
Angry murmurs rose all around them in reaction to his words, and as Éomer stood and watched, still contemplating whether he should go ahead and seek forgiveness in death, he felt the tension rise to an almost unbearable level. What was about to happen seemed unavoidable. He knew what the beginning of a violent outbreak shortly before the slaughter began felt like. Did Gríma know it, too? Was he counting on it, even? Did he want his prisoner to witness the massacre first-hand?
The king swore under his breath, inwardly praying for the captain to come to his senses and save his village from annihilation. From his position behind Wormtongue's horse, which – luckily – shielded him from at least some of the villager's eyes, Éomer watched the spectacle unfold when a sudden tug on the chain around his neck made him stumble out of the beast's shadow.
"In case you are wondering who the pitiful creature I brought along to witness your education is – I already heard his name wander through your rows, and yes, it his him indeed - it is your king!" The murmuring quickly became a shocked silence over which only the flames could still be heard. A collective gasp, and then nothing more. With a sudden swing of the chain's end against his prisoner's head, Wormtongue forced Éomer down on his knees in the middle of the marketplace. Something hot began to trickle down the back of his neck as the crowd gasped in response.
"This sorry-looking, pitiful, filthy excuse for a presumably great warrior is the noble King Éomer, former Marshal of the Mark and son of Éomund, Lord of the Eastfold! A true descendent the noblest house the Riddermark has to offer. The epitome of all that a man of Rohan could aspire to be." Silence. Éomer felt their piercing glances on him, and even if he could not bring himself to lift his head and meet their eyes, he knew what expressions their faces held.
"And now look at him: Bereft of his kingly accessories, filthy, dirty and wet! And weak, not even able to look you in the eye, so ashamed is he! What is left now of that royal grace that separates him from those he wages war against? What is there that sets him – and you – apart from the Dunlendings, except your good fortune of having been born on the presumably 'right', or should I say 'stronger', side?" Another tug at the chain almost brought his prisoner down. An anguished groan escaped the villagers. To Éomer's ears, it sounded like they were cheering. He squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the inevitable. There would be no honour in death for him. There would only be death, nothing more... and yet he welcomed it.
"Leave him be!" a firm voice rising from the angrily muttering crowd demanded. It was answered by an angry roar.
"I warn you-" Wormtongue began, but his voice was drowned out by the sudden uproar.
It happened from one moment to the next. There was no build-up, no warning, and Éomer didn't even see the first wave of the attack because he was still reeling from the blow to his head. A moment later when his vision cleared, arrows were flying, spears thrust and the crowd was surging towards the invaders with fury in their screaming faces. Behind him, two of his Dunlending guards sank to the ground with an anguished grunt, and the chain around his neck slackened. He turned on his heels, eyes wide, just realising that Wormtongue was in fact now the only one who had a hold of him, and he was being distracted by the riot!
A few fast steps backwards, a violent tug with his full body weight behind it, and the chain fell down. Except for his still chained hands, he was free now! Movement behind him. He swivelled.
"Your arms, my lord! Stay still!"
His arms were being seized, and then there was a metallic crunching sound. The chain gave way, and Éomer pulled his arms from his back against the violent screaming of his neck muscles and the agony in his right side, unable to suppress an anguished grunt. Around them, the battle roared, and all kinds of sharp and pointy objects scythed through the air. The chains fastened to the ring around his neck fell off, cut by – his kinsmen? He stared at the three men surrounding him in stunned bewilderment. What were they doing?
"Go, my lord! They're coming for you!" The captain. He held the reins of the scrawny bay horse Éomer had ridden the past days and motioned for him to move. How could this be? After what he had done, how could they help him? Another frantic gesture. "Quick!"
"The king! Don't let him get away!"
No time to think this through. They were sacrificing themselves for him. Everything would be in vain if he hesitated now. Éomer closed his fingers around the skittish bay's mane and found to his dismay that he was too weak to make it onto the horse's unsaddled back one-armed. The next moment, he was lifted up and swung his leg over.
A last, brief glance into the sweat-beaded, concerned faces broke the king's heart. They were doing this because he was their ruler, and because the honour of the Éorlingas would rather force them to die than have their monarch insulted by an attacking force, no matter what they thought of him. They despised him, but would sacrifice themselves for him nevertheless.
"Thank you. I-" Words failed him. A group of Uruks was coming their way with swinging blades. A brief nod that Éomer hoped expressed all he felt for his people, then he thrust his horse around and kicked his heels into the animal's sides.
"The king!" Gríma's voice, faintly recognisable over the roaring battle, but behind him. "He must not escape!"
With his bad arm pressed against his torso, Éomer urged his steed forward for all he was worth, and the scrawny horse responded with an explosion of speed that took his breath away. The thin body stretched under him, became a horizontal line as the hooves hammered the ground in a frantic rhythm. A quick glance backwards. His vision blurred from the wind and smoke, Éomer saw a huge dark shape clear the battling crowd and charge after him. Gríma was sending the wargs to retrieve his prisoner! He could not see the second one, but was sure that he would encounter it very soon. Presumably, its rider would be trying to cut off his path.
His hand firmly grasping the bay's mane, the king ducked even deeper until he practically lay on his horse, and silently prayed for his steed to give all it had, all of its great heart – and more, if need be!
"Run! Run!" Another glance. The warg was gaining, the threatening grin of the deadly jaws coming closer. There was no doubt he'd be torn apart if the creature brought them down. Wargs were known to be too ferocious even for their own riders. They did only what they wanted to do. They did not follow orders. Even if Gríma wanted him alive, if that warg behind them decided it wanted to bite off his head, he'd be a carcass. Nobody would stop it.
Another look. Closer still! Too close! The jaws opened. Éomer's reaction was sheer reflex – a hard tug on the mane he was holding on to, a violent shift of his body weight, and he virtually threw his steed into a narrow alley. For a precarious moment, the bay's hooves slipped on the wet stones before it found its balance again and – brushing against a wall with its left side – regained its speed. A short praise together with an appreciative pat on the horse's neck as they bolted down the alley. They had won a few lengths with their unexpected turn, but now the warg was back behind them and gaining again… and Éomer still couldn't see the other one! Another alley, another abrupt turn. Again the ploy worked, but up ahead, the huts were thinning out. They had reached the edge of the village, and nothing lay before them but wide open ground.
"Run, my friend! Just a little bit further!" From experience Éomer knew that the great orc-wolves were an explosion of speed for maybe a quarter league at the most. They were still fast after that; but a good horse could surely outlast them in the long run, and what the mount that carried him lacked in constitution, it made up for in bravery. It would tear itself to pieces to carry them both to safety. Maybe it would be enough. Maybe – another look back. The distance had grown. Not much, but visibly enough for him to feel a slight twitch of optimism. 'Yes. Yes!'
"Come on! Come on!" He knew the horse was already doing its best, but just in case, he kicked his heels into the flanks and then shifted his weight again, more forwards, onto the bay's shoulders where he wouldn't hinder the animals movement as much. Strained even to lift his body up… and the horse responded. Another surge of speed. Faster! The distance grew, and the sight of the slowing predator behind them forced a wild, triumphant cry from the king as they cleared the last hut – and a huge dark shape jumped at them!
No time for a reaction. For a moment, Éomer felt lifted as his steed's hooves left the ground in a frantic attempt to jump over the second warg, then an obscene crunching sound and the impact. The king was thrown from the animals back and against a mountain of muscle under wiry, brown fur. A horrible scream, a gurgling, roaring noise, then Éomer hit the ground with bone-shattering force. A few heartbeats long he lay on his back and stared at the smoke-marred sky, all wind knocked out of him, and then a huge, ugly head moved into his blurring, darkening vision; a notion of glistening white jaws along with the stench of rotting meat…
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.