1. 1 - Dark Times
- Chapter 1 / Dark Times -
Dark times are ours. It has been months now since our kingdom has been cast into the shadows. Shadows of treachery or grief, they spare no-one; not even our beloved Théoden King who seems to fade, descending every day deeper and deeper into death. I do not recognize our lord anymore: from healthy and brave he has become unmoving and senile, shriveled on his throne as Gríma, son of Galmod – the Serpent, as we call him – whispers into his ear. What words can turn a man into a wraith so? Even the King's own son is appalled by the change; many times have I have seen him cast incredulous glances to Éowyn, his cousin and our Shield Maiden, as he reported the increasing orc raids on our lands. She held the King's hand, sitting by his feet and trying to ignore Gríma's presence, her eyes full of sorrow. For he is hard to ignore, the Snake of Meduseld: he haunts her every step, every shadow she thought she could trust to keep her secrets.
Yet she still has hope, for her brother Éomer is a noble and brave man, loyal to Théoden King. He can still defend the kingdom, when our lord is ill.
An illness – that is what Gríma and his followers call it. But I call it a lie: no man can decline so quickly, and Théoden is – was – a mighty warrior, strong of body and will. I call it dark magic.
Gríma says that Saruman, the sorcerer that lives in his tower if Isengard, is our ally. But I have heard lord Éomer tell his sister that the orcs raiding the March, stealing our horses and killing the people, bear the mark of a white hand on their armor. But there are few who listened, aside from me. The allegiance to Gríma, no matter how unnatural and vile, is not without advantages.
Where is the Horse and the Rider? Where is Herugrim, whose protection used to be ours? It has been taken from a weakened hand, plucked as toy from an unwitting child… Alas for the splendor of the King!
The orcs have burned the crops; with winter approaching, how will we survive? Those loyal to the Serpent will have a share of the supplies stocked away in Meduseld, but I am wondering what will become of the others. I am not worried for myself: I will find a way. Not many pay attention to me, as of late, and my comings and goings seem to remain unnoticed.
I will stay invisible, despised by the rough, cruel men that have come to the palace, lately. They laugh at me, and mistreat me when they can, but I am otherwise unharmed. Shadows, stealth and cunning shall be precious allies; I will survive this war.
But may Béma help those who, unlike me, will suffer the wrath of the sharp-tongued, self-proclaimed advisor to Théoden King; those who walk around in fear, and go hungry.
Winter is coming. The winds have grown cold, the sky a ceiling of gloomy grey that seems suspended above us all as an ill omen. Will no one help the Rohirrim, our glorious deeds of old forgotten? Are we doomed to fade away, all will of resistance broken by hunger and disease, loyalty bought for a piece of stale bread?
Will no one save us?
From the shadows, I pray for my people, for lady Éowyn, so alone in the dark halls of a castle that used to be full of her laughter; for our lord Éomer, so that he can find the strength to protect our kingdom day after day, his loyalty of steel stronger than that of his sword. I pray for Théodred, who must summon the courage to withstand his father's decisions, given through a clouded mind, whispered by a treacherous tongue.
I pray for all the people of Rohan, those who are dying at the hands of the orcs, and those who are yet to perish for their land. Their deaths protect us, and keep the evil beasts at bay – may they be blessed, in this darkened life and the next.
May the wind carry their cries of agony beyond our borders, and tell our old allies what our pride does not allow us to say; we are in dire need of help. Come! Come, and make haste, lest the noble kingdom of the Horse Lords descends into oblivion.
My hands ached from the weight of the basket and the sting of the merciless November wind. I stopped for an instant in my slow progression though the empty streets of Edoras to set down the load of firewood I was carrying, and pulled on my sleeves, trying to cover my hands. Cold was not the only threat, I knew this: one attentive look would suffice to see through my simple disguise, and the punishment was far worse than the crime. I sighed inwardly; had I been born a man, I would have had no need for such cunning.
My hands sufficiently hidden, I resumed my journey, shuffling up the path towards Meduseld. I was used to this gait, a mixture of pitiful limping and crooked posture that made me so uninteresting for those around me, though it got tiring and painful by the end of the day to remain so bent. As I approached the doors of the palace, I saw the sentries lounging outside, propped against the wall and wrapped up in their thick cloaks in an attempt to ward off the wind. One of them I knew: Fréalaf, a notorious drunkard and gambler, who had been too happy to join Gríma's hand-picked little army in exchange for more money to lose – money that came directly from the King's treasury, from what I had heard. He was not a danger to me. I had already met him, and though those encounters could hardly be described as pleasant, the man was usually too hungover to notice me walking by, and even less to pay attention to my identity. The other, however, I had never seen, and made sure to accentuate my helpless appearance by hunching my shoulders and looking down.
I approached; scowling, Fréalaf slowly reached out to open the doors, wrapping himself deeper into the cloak and grumbling all the way. As I passed by, I held my breath. My eyes on the floor, the basket clenched in my hands beneath the dirty sleeves, I limped past the sentries. It seemed I had succeeded: they didn't call out, and I was about to enter the hall when a sharp pain erupted in my back and I tumbled forward. "Move!" yelled the younger guard.
Dropping the basket, I reached out to break my fall and, realizing how it would compromise my disguise, pulled my hands back, twisting so to avoid a direct collision between my face and the floor. As a result, I landed awkwardly on my side, the pain adding to the ache in my back. I cried out; but luck was with me, for fear had made my voice hoarse.
"Hurry, hag!" laughed the guard. "We won't hold the door all day until you drag your old ass through!"
I recoiled from the sheer venom of his voice. "Sorry, my Lords…" With trembling hands, I began to gather the spilled wood, watching from the corner of my eye as the heavy doors were slammed behind me.
It had been a close one…
I was still shaking in reaction as I made my way towards the kitchens, keeping to the shadows that now dwelt in the Golden Hall, and avoiding at all cost to took towards the throne. There sat Théoden, our beloved King, who once was so proud and strong, and who now could not even take care of himself for the most basic things. And by his side would be Gríma, whose perceptiveness I feared much more than that of the drunk, lazy guards. Gríma was no fool; he would surely see through my little ruse at once, if he bothered to pay attention to an old servant, and if he thought that my unmasking would amuse him or serve his purposes… I glanced swiftly to the end of the Hall. No, Gríma was not there; instead of black, the person sitting at Théoden's side was clothed in white. Éowyn… I lowered my head again, this time in guilt and shame.
For I have failed my mistress. When I chose my own protection over my duty to my lady, when I lied to protect my identity, I failed Éowyn and left her all alone. Now she has no one to confide in, no one to watch over her sleep. And yet this decision I made easily… I have no royal blood to ward off Gríma's lecherous men. I have no husband, no brother, no father to help me; even my King can not protect me. It is a time of hard choices and broken oaths.
"Hurry up, Magge," said Háma as I walked by. "And in the future, it might be best you took the backdoor…" He cast a disapproving glance towards the entrance of the Hall. "The standards for the King's guards have grown low, of late." His voice was bitter yet resigned: it was well-known that despite his position as Chief of Théoden's guards, he had long since lost his say about who was appointed to the protection of Edoras and its inhabitants. Instead, the men hired by Gríma seemed to squander the King's gold in endless card games and drink his wine all day and night long, while the people of Rohan suffered in silence and still hoped for their King to heal and rise against this injustice.
I nodded and shuffled by. Truth was, this hope had long since died in me; the things I heard and witnessed every day gave me no reason to think that our skies could someday brighten. I had turned bitter before my time, and it suited perfectly my appearance. There was no happy tomorrow; only a succession of darkening days until winter, and if we survived the colds and the hardships it would bring, we would live to see a spring of hard work and little reward.
As I entered the kitchens, I was met by three frightened faces. "It's only Magge," breathed Alfreda, the cook, in relief as she and Rowena resumed their tasks. She dipped an old cloth into a basin and applied it gently to the face of the youngest in the room, Elswide. The girl winced as the damp fabric touched the cut on her lip, her swollen and tear-streaked face telling all too well what had happened. She sat, quivering, on the counter as the two older women cleaned the various cuts and bruises on the skin revealed by her torn clothes.
"Ceolwulf. Again." Rowena scowled when she noticed my glance. "And he will be getting away with it. Again."
"That vicious bastard." Alfreda dabbed fiercely on one of the cuts and Elswide flinched away. "He deserves death for what he did." Elswide said nothing; she seemed to be waiting for the end of Alfreda's tirade and of her ministrations, her once pretty face blank. She looked like a sheep, I thought, sheared and left trembling, and resigned to the fact that it was to happen on a regular basis. We all were sheep, here. We all spoke of wrath and punishment in the relative safety of our rooms, only to hang our heads low and bow once facing the wolves of Meduseld.
For all our anger, we were beginning to accept the changes, slowly forgetting how things used to be. Soon we will be broken.