11. Chapter 11
With a bow Wulfstan opened the door to King Théoden's rooms and held it open for me. "If you please, my lady."
Hesitantly, I crossed the threshold. A soft thud behind me marked the door closing. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I saw that the room was deserted, the king's chair standing empty. The fire in the grate had burnt down to embers, but as before, the air was stifling hot. What could King Théoden possibly want from me at this hour? Or had I been called at Wormtongue's instigation? I told myself that surely there wasn't anything he could do to me in the king's own quarters, but the thought held little comfort. My slippers sank into the thick furs as I advanced a few more steps, and feeling unsteady on my feet, I stopped.
The door to the king's bedroom opened, and Gríma emerged. "Ah, Lady Lothíriel," he greeted me, "how kind of you to come so promptly. I hope the summons did not inconvenience you?"
He too let his glance linger on my body, making me feel exposed in my low cut dress. "Not at all," I replied, lifting my chin. "The king has asked to see me?"
"Yes, he has."
However, the councillor did not elaborate, but instead crossed over to a low table that held glasses and a decanter filled with red wine. His back to me, he poured two glasses. He offered me one, but I declined with a polite smile. Not even my good manners could make me accept a drink from his hand.
Gríma took a small sip. "King Théoden is worried about you," he stated.
"Worried!" I could not believe the king had uttered any such sentiment, dazed as he had been all evening. What did Gríma mean to accomplish by that statement? My headache worsened.
"The king feels he stands in a father's stead to you, for you are a member of his household," the councillor explained in such a soft voice that I had to lean forward to catch his words. In the gloom his eyes glittered deepest black, like splinters of obsidian. The only thing alive in his bloodless face, they seemed to exude a strange power, drawing me towards him. I blinked to clear my mind, but was unable to look away.
He took a step forward. "King Théoden is worried you might have been led astray."
Nonsense, I wanted to say, but somehow my tongue refused to form the word. The room was so quiet that I could sense the slow, rhythmic pulse of my heart. Not even a muffled sound reached us from the corridor, as if the world outside had ceased to exist.
"You are so young," Gríma said with a kind smile, "and far away from your father's protection and guidance. Unfortunately there are those who would take advantage of your situation."
Under his steady gaze I felt my will eroding. I meant to protest that I was perfectly able to look after myself, but could not formulate a coherent sentence. A strange lassitude had spread through me. I wanted to rub my eyes to clear it away, but could not lift my arm, all my limbs felt heavy as lead. How stifling the air was.
He took my hand and caressed it with slow, mesmerizing strokes. "Sadly, some men make a sport of preying on inexperienced maidens like you. They take their pleasure and then abandon them to find a fresh victim."
Looking into Gríma's dark eyes, I found myself nodding agreement. In some weird, convoluted way his argumentation made perfect sense. He was right: I had been reckless earlier on and had not behaved in a way my father would approve of. Perhaps I had really let myself be led astray. "Yes," I whispered. Just saying that single word took an effort.
Gríma smiled his approbation at me. "I knew you'd come to see it my way." He continued to massage my hand. "What you need, my pretty princess, is a protector."
"A protector," I echoed, feeling completely detached from my body, as if I were a mere observer of myself. The edges of my vision blurred and I felt my eyelids drooping.
Gríma slipped an arm around my shoulder. "Why don't you sit down? You're tired, aren't you."
With slow steps he led me to the chair by the fire. Somewhere in my mind I was aware that I should be worried, but the floating sensation filling me was so pleasant that I simply dismissed the thought. The thick furs on the floor dragged at my feet and I leant heavily on his arm.
"Here you are," he murmured and settled me into the chair. My legs gave way and gratefully I sank into the soft upholstery, the thick velvet inviting me to lean back and relax. Kneeling by my side, he reached up and removed the gold fillet holding my hair back, dropping it to the floor where it lay on the dark furs, glinting. Released from its bounds, my hair fell forward and he twined a strand round his finger.
"No wonder he desires you, with hair like that," Gríma said. "What a delightful weakness in our proud Marshal at last." I did not like the way he licked his lips while he stroked my hair possessively, but could not quite reason out why. How tired I was.
Gríma reached out a hand and picked up the full glass from the table on the other side. "Have some wine," he urged, closing my fingers over the stem of the crystal goblet. "You did not drink all your Yule cup, did you?"
"It was bitter," I whispered in explanation.
Leaning over me, he smiled. "This won't be bitter, it will be sweet. Very sweet." He rolled the word sweet on his tongue and I found myself watching a drop of spittle clinging to his lips in helpless fascination. A strange medicinal smell emanated from him.
"Sweet and very enjoyable, my beauty," he whispered and his hand slithered up my arm. "And now you will be a good little girl and drink up your wine." His forehead shone with perspiration.
"Drink up..." I agreed obediently, my thoughts moving slow as treacle as I lifted the glass. The wine had the colour of dark blood, and I watched the reflections cast by the dying fire in the many facets of the glass with a detached fascination.
"Drink it," Gríma breathed, his eyes expanding into pools of blackness filling my vision. With one hand he guided the glass to my lips, the other he slid up my throat to cup my cheek. The sound of his rapid breathing filled my ears and his touch felt sweaty against my skin. Drink...
With sudden clarity the memory of Éomer resting his hand in exactly the same spot came to my mind. His hand warm and sure. Through the fog clogging my mind, very slowly a thought surfaced and I frowned. I did not want Gríma to touch me. It was...wrong. Unable to do anything else, I pressed my lips together, while I tried to make sense of what was happening.
He tilted the glass and some of the wine spilled and ran down my throat to be soaked up by the ruffles of my dress. The sickly sweet smell filled my senses. "Stop fighting me!" Gríma said in a furious whisper. "I will have you."
A spark of defiance kindled deep in my soul. It was wrong! My fingers closed on the glass and I tried to push it away. "No." I had meant to shout the word, but it emerged as a mere whisper. What had he done to me? How had he captured my will like a bird caught in a snare?
Gríma's face contorted with anger. "Yes, I will! And Éomer shall know."
Bright rage flared within me, burning away the bonds enveloping my mind. "Never!" Suddenly I comprehended his plan in all its horrible details. He intended to use me to revenge himself on Éomer! The spell broken, I found that I could move after all. I threw the wine in his face. And when he cursed and jumped back I surged to my feet, feeling like a swimmer surfacing from murky depths to see clear sky again.
"Guards!" I yelled.
Gríma laughed and took a step forward, his hands stretched out in claws. "They know better than to interrupt my sport."
The swine! I raised my hand and broke the heavy glass goblet on the arm of King Théoden's chair. Then I thrust the jagged remains in Gríma's face. Caught by surprise, he scrambled backwards and tripped over one of the furs, falling to the floor.
I ran to the door, stumbling in my haste to get there. Grabbing the handle, I looked back a moment. Gríma had made no attempt to get up, but he watched me with eyes filled with malice. My bile rose at the realization of what had so nearly happened, the memory of his hands touching me with such intimacy.
"You will pay for this!" I hissed. "I will see you hanged for what you tried to do to me!"
He threw back his head and laughed. "Tried to do what?" he asked.
The unexpectedness of his reaction caught me by surprise. "This," I said, motioning at the chair by the fire. "Drugging my wine, trying to ravish me."
He rolled onto his side and picked up my gold fillet lying on the furs. Twirling it round his fingers, he smirked up at me. "I don't know what you're talking about, my Lady Princess."
I curled my hands into fists. "Éomer will have your head."
He shrugged. "So what? The good Marshal has wanted it for some time. But you have no proof. The word of a woman and foreigner against that of the king's trusted advisor of many years. Who will believe you?"
Éomer would believe me. And he would take action. But perhaps that was exactly what Wormtongue intended? Seeing my momentary hesitation, Gríma smiled. "In fact, if questioned, I will simply say that I caught you sneaking in here and putting something in the king's glass, only you smashed it when I came in."
The liar! "Why should I do such a thing?"
"To poison King Théoden."
The accusation took my breath away. "That's ridiculous! I have no reason to do any such thing."
"Ah, but you do," he answered and sat up. "With our dear, beloved king removed, the Marshal would be one step closer to the throne. He has been very particular with his attentions tonight, and I might not be the only person wondering if perhaps he hopes that a princess from Gondor would bolster his claim. What if he put you up to it?"
"Nobody will believe you. Éomer would never do such a thing!"
"But will the king dismiss such an accusation? Will Prince Théodred?" He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Becoming Queen of Rohan is a powerful motivation."
"You are evil!" I flung at him.
"Because I take what I want?" He took my gold fillet in his hands and ran his fingers along its narrow length. "The House of Eorl is like a mighty oak that is rotten inside, and soon a powerful storm will come and topple it. Then those who are ready can take their chances. Do you think the beginnings of your own noble house were any different?"
Was that his plan? To become King of Rohan himself? Then the full ramifications hit me. "And I suppose to lend your claim legitimacy, you will marry the last surviving descendant of the House of Eorl?"
He narrowed his eyes. "That's none of your business."
It was my turn to laugh. "Éowyn will slit your throat."
The gold fillet bent. "She will come to love me!" he hissed. "I will woo her until she sees how much she wronged me and comes to me of her own free will."
"After killing the brother she adores?"
"It's all his fault!" Gríma snapped. "He poisons Éowyn's mind against me." The fillet dropped to the floor as his fingers clenched and unclenched by his side. "When I first came to Meduseld she used to smile at me, but now she just treats me with contempt." He looked up at me, and the hate in his eyes took my breath away. "Before I'm finished with our Marshal, I will see him publicly disgraced and he shall lose everything he holds dear in his life. And you will help me, whether you want to or not."
I wrenched the door open. "Never!" And I fled outside.
In the corridor I found Wulfstan guarding the door. He spun round at my precipitous exit and his eyes widened with surprise when he saw me. Holding out the shards of glass before me, I edged away from him, but he made no move to grab me. Then Gríma called to him, and throwing a last startled glance at me he went inside the room, closing the door behind him.
I sagged against the wall and the glass fell from my nerveless fingers to shatter on the stone floor. My outrage had carried me this far, but now the realization of what had so nearly happened hit me. I started shaking all over. How had Wormtongue managed to trap my will, turning me into his compliant slave? He must have put some kind of potion into my Yule cup! I gagged at the memory of his sweaty hand caressing my cheek, his fetid breath in my face. And it could have been so much worse, this very moment he might be...
Éomer. I wanted Éomer! Wanted to feel safe again, wanted him to put his arms around me and erase the memory of Wormtongue's touch. Leaning against the wall, I stumbled down the corridor, my only thought to find him and throw myself into his arms. Only to stop when I reached the door leading to the Hall. Gríma's last words still rang in my ears. Was I doing exactly as he intended? The door stood slightly ajar, and when I peered through the opening I saw Éomer sitting at a table, talking to Marshal Elfhelm and Lord Erkenbrand. The urge to run to him nearly overwhelmed me, but by an effort of will, I stopped myself. What if I was playing right into Gríma's hands?
Behind me the door to King Théoden's chambers opened, and Wulfstan emerged. I pressed myself against the wall to hide in the shadows. But he never looked my way, instead hurrying down the corridor towards the small guardroom situated at the other end. A moment later he returned with six guards in tow whom he let into the king's apartments.
I closed my eyes. What would happen if I went inside the hall and told Éomer what Gríma had just tried to do to me? I could see it clear as day. His temper would take over and he would storm into the king's rooms, demanding justice. To be met by armed guards. And whether he fought them or not, the outcome would be the same: shame and disgrace. The Marshal's weakness, Gríma had called me. And he had been right. By staying in Rohan I had become a sharpened dagger held against Éomer's throat. Whenever he wanted to, Gríma could carry through his threat and accuse him of angling for the throne by marrying a princess from Gondor. I did not even know for sure if Prince Théodred would think his cousin innocent. True, their banter had sounded easygoing, but the fact remained that the prince would be Éomer's liege one day. And he might not be too pleased to have the prize offered to him by Denethor snapped up by another man. As for King Théoden, he would believe whatever lies Wormtongue fed him.
I leant my head against the carved doorframe, thinking that I should have returned home to Dol Amroth with Dirhael when I'd had the chance. A tear slid down my cheek and I wiped it away angrily. What a fool I'd been to think I could make a difference here! Slowly I traced one of the carvings on the frame - a horse, his head thrown back in a neigh, nostrils wide, mane flowing in the wind. Eorl at the battle of Celebrant. Would I witness the fall of his house as Gríma had predicted?
For a long time I stood leaning against the doorframe, feeling like an animal cornered by hounds, with no way to run. The hour was late and the whole of Meduseld was asleep, except for the three men in the hall. I listened to the murmur of their voices, unable to distinguish individual words, but recognizing with utter certainty Éomer's deep tones whenever he spoke. His weakness.
I had to leave Edoras. But where could I go? Return to Gondor? Without an escort and against the Steward's wishes? I risked another glance through the door. Éomer was explaining something to Lord Erkenbrand, gesturing and using their empty tankards to illustrate a point. He threw back his head in laughter at something the other man said, and I had never in my life wanted to do anything as much as to run to him. It seemed to me that he should somehow sense my desperation, sense me standing so close to him, yet so far away. That moment he frowned and looked around. Hastily I retreated further into the shadows, although he could not possibly see me. By some freak chance the next words carried clearly to where I stood.
"What is it?" Lord Erkenbrand asked.
"Nothing," Éomer answered. "I just thought I heard somebody call my name."
How much I needed him. But I would not be used to bring about his undoing. I leant against the cold wall and closed my eyes, for I knew that if I looked at him again my resolution would fail. There was still one course left I could take to get out of Gríma's clutches. Even if it broke my heart.
So I straightened up, and wiped my face on my wine-soaked sleeve. Now I needed to find a page to fetch Lord Erkenbrand. The Lord of the Westfold owed me a favour.
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.