4. 4 - Deliverance
- Chapter 4 / Deliverance -
The stairs of the watchtower were narrow and slippery, and dangerous even for someone young and in good health; for the old woman that I pretended to be, it was an almost impossible task. Yet here I was, attempting the climb, the plate in one hand, the other clutching the rail, and fighting the cold wind that tried to sweep me down. The guard at the top looked at my efforts with sympathy, but did not move to help me. He was not a cruel man, but like everyone in Edoras, he feared Gríma's retribution.
Since Théodred's death, and despite it, the Serpent had declared it my duty to bring food to the sentry on the watchtower. He probably believed that it was only a matter of time until I slipped and fell to my death; to his credit, I believed so as well.
Finally, I managed to make it to the narrow platform that overlooked the city and the plain below. From this vantage point, one could see the Harrowdale almost to its end, and the Snowbourn, whose deep waters flowed slowly, carrying ice from the White Mountains into the valley.
The guard eagerly took the plate from my hands and dug into the food before it became cold. "Thank you, Magge," he mumbled between two spoonfulls, and I nodded distractedly, wrapping my cloak tighter against me and looking beyond the city walls. We rarely received any news from the Mark anymore, and as I watched the windswept grasslands below, I wondered how the other inhabitants lived though these foul times. Between the orcs stealing our horses and the Dunlending raids, did they even know that their prince had perished, and that their King would soon be no more as well?
"Foul cold, today," commented the guard when he handed me back the empty plate. He glanced towards the palace, looking embarrassed. "Listen, I'd help you down, but…"
I waved him off. "Kind of you, my Lord," I shook my head. "but 'tis not your duty. Your duty is to watch the valley, and I wouldn't want you neglecting it for an old woman like me." Even though the only thing that will walk up this road anytime soon is Saruman's army, I thought, and he has only to wait a little longer, to spend the last chills in his tower, in warmth and comfort. By summer, the gates will be wide open for him.
A movement down in the valley caught my eye, and I hobbled towards the guardrail to take a better look. "Riders approaching!" yelled the bewildered guard behind me, making me jump in surprise. Indeed, three silhouettes were riding up the path to the city, now galloping between the mounds of the Kings of old. Below, in the streets of Edoras, the few inhabitants who still dared wander outside hurried towards their houses. I, too, had to go. Clutching the rail with all my might, I started to descend.
"Open the gates!" yelled the guard as I limped up the street. I had to warn Éowyn: this could be nothing, just as it could be news from her brother. Either way, she would want to be prepared for the visit.
Cursing the winter frost that still covered the stones beneath my feet, I walked as quickly as fast as my agility and my disguise allowed me to. Still, I heard the riders thunder past me, and swore under my breath. I was not fast enough… When I looked up, I saw the horses halt before the palace. Two of them I recognized: our war steeds, one white and one roan. And the third was a méaras! I knew only one that still lived, and my heart leapt with joy in my chest: Gandalf had returned! His last visit had seen him banished, but his presence now gave me hope. Had the time of the deliverance arrived at last?
I neared the steps, and saw that the visitors were in fact in number of four: one whom I once knew as Gandalf the Grey. One was a man dressed like a Ranger, scruffy and tired-looking, but his stance was proud. One was a dwarf, and I could not help but stare; never had I seen any of his race. What he lacked in height, he seemed to compensate by the amount of weapons he carried: I counted at least three deadly-looking axes. The fourth…
He was an elf; this should have been clear to me even as I had watched them approach, from the slenderness of his body, the fairness of his face and the longbow strapped to his back. His hair was long and golden, his ears pointed, just like those who had seen one of the Firstborn had told; his very demeanour was full of grace. Truly, he was wondrous to look at, and my heart constricted in my chest in envy of the one who could call him hers.
And, distracted as I had been by the elf's beauty, I forgot to watch my step, and the traitorous frost used it to my disadvantage: I slipped and, with a small gasp, saw myself fall. The elf moved faster than any warrior I had seen, and caught my wrist before I hit the ground. Still, he could not prevent my knee from colliding with the stones, and my eyes watered in pain. "Are you alright?" he asked, his smooth voice filled with concern.
I nodded. "Many thanks, Master elf," I whispered. "My legs are not what they used to be." The elf smiled and helped me up.
Suddenly, I saw his eyes widen. "Indeed," he drawled and, following his gaze, I found myself staring at his fingers on my wrist, and more precisely at the small patch of pale, unwrinkled skin where his hand had wiped away the grime.
Panicking, I jerked my hand away. "You didn't see anything" I hissed. He frowned in confusion, but I was not about to allow him to figure out what had happened. Gathering my skirts, I curtsied briefly before turning around and heading for the backdoor. I was late, if I wanted to warn Éowyn of Gandalf's arrival. I tried to think that my hastiness had nothing to do with the emotions that had risen in my chest at the elf's contact, at the burning feeling of those long, graceful fingers on my skin, so intense that I almost expected to see a scar where they had curled around my wrist.
"Uncle!" Éowyn gasped as Théoden King was thrown backwards into his throne by the strength of Gandalf's magic. But the Ranger restrained her, and I saw her agree to wait and see, despite the concern on her face. She seemed to accept the visitors as allies, so I, too, halted, waiting for the outcome and looking around me in astonishment. All around the Hall, Gríma's men lie bleeding from their broken noses, unconscious, or clutching their most sensitive parts, absorbed in their pain. And all of this had been accomplished in a matter of minutes by three weaponless warriors… The dwarf seemed especially satisfied, as he sat on a struggling Gríma.
"Hearken to me! I release you from the spell."
A maniacal laughter filled the Hall in response to the wizard's words, and I turned my eyes back to the throne. "You have no power here!" the King hissed, his pale, veiled eyes now full of malice. I shivered when I realized that it was Saruman who was speaking through our King. Suddenly, the old, weakened man had become the incarnation of our enemy, and Théoden's past glory and his kindness only made such possession all the more twisted and evil. Théoden's rotten teeth were bared in a triumphant snarl.
Gandalf scowled, his white eyebrows furrowed in concentration. "I shall draw you, Saruman, as poison is drawn from a wound." And he shrugged off his grey cloak. I closed my eyes, momentarily blinded by the white light that radiated from his white clothes. Yet the light was soothing, in a way, and as I stood inside the halo, I felt the power radiating from the wizard. In that instant, I knew that all the hopes we had thought drowned under the blood of our fallen warriors, broken under the blows we had received, had resurfaced. We would stand tall once again, and raise our blades and banners high.
"If I go, Théoden dies!" hissed Saruman through our King's mouth.
"You did not kill me, you will not kill him." Gandalf pointed his staff at Théoden, as the King lunged forward in Saruman's last attempt to retain his power over the body.
"Rohan is mine!"
With a cry, the King was thrown back in his seat.
"Uncle!" Éowyn cried again, freeing herself from the Ranger's grasp to rush up to him. Théoden folded forward on his throne, and would have collapsed had the Lady not supported him by the shoulders. Everyone in the Hall held their breath, as our King looked around in awe, his noble face shedding the many years it had gained during the last months. At last, his gaze fell onto Éowyn.
"I know your face… Éowyn" he whispered, smiling, and I could no longer contain the tears of joy that burned my eyes. Hope dies slowly, but can be rekindled in a heartbeat.
"Gandalf?" Théoden looked at the wizard in incomprehension, maybe trying to remember the echoes of our world he had perceived through his imprisonment inside a decaying body. "Dark have been my dreams of late…"
The wizard smiled knowingly, glancing towards Háma who knelt before the throne, Herugrim in his hands. "Your fingers would remember their old strength better... if they grasped your sword."
I watched, wringing my hands in impatience as our King reached out slowly, as if trying to remember the weight of a weapon in his hand, and curled his strong fingers around the hilt. Herugrim left its sheath with a metallic whisper that echoed solemnly through the Hall, and a fascinated expression appeared on Théoden's face, only to be replaced by anger, as his eyes came to rest on Gríma. The Serpent shook his head, his eyes pleading. "No, my Lord!" he whispered. "I've only ever served you…"
"Your servitude was naught but a heap of lies!" Théoden growled, standing from his throne. Picking up the counsellor by the collar of his richly embroidered robes, the King threw him towards the doors. Gríma cried out in pain as he landed awkwardly on the stone floor. The people stepped aside in disgust on his way, their eyes hungry for vengeance. Théoden advanced upon the Serpent, kicking him in his rage. Gríma howled again, his thin hands raised in front of him for protection. "No, my liege!" he pleaded, his pale eyes full of fear.
"Your leechcraft would have had me crawling on all fours like a beast!" The King towered above the scrawny man. Again he pulled him up by his clothes, and sent him rolling down the stairs. The crowd watched in silence, and suddenly I felt sad. Gríma had plotted the fall of the Mark, had sold each and every one of us to the enemy, sacrificed our men on battlefields and filled his pockets with gold while half of the land was dying of hunger. But he did not deserve to be put to death for our sole satisfaction. None of the evil he had caused would be thus solved. And if our Théoden King killed Gríma today, defenceless as he was, where would be our nobility and pride then? And that might just be something that Saruman would enjoy: to throw our own evils into our face.
Eager to avoid the sight of the Serpent's punishment, I looked away and met the elf's eyes. They were old and full of grief, as were probably mine. He nodded briefly, a ghost of a smile gracing his lips, but that mimic seemed bitter to me. Maybe he, too, was pained to watch us act with the same cruelty that our tormentors had shown us.
Slightly dazed, as if in a dream, I saw the Ranger pull Théoden away from a cowering Gríma. I saw the counsellor look around him, embracing us all in a look of hatred. Then he flew, stealing a steed from the stables, and even though horse theft is a heavy crime anywhere in the Mark, we let him go. Soon he had disappeared on the horizon, a little black rider carrying away his black lies. But I had the feeling this would not be the last we heard from him.
"Magge." I turned around, and saw Lady Éowyn approach. She looked more proud and radiant than she had in months, finally freed from Gríma's constant presence behind her. She could stop wearing that cold mask she had composed herself. She was free, at last. And so was I. "Magge, go to the kitchens, will you? They must be warned that a meal is to be prepared…"
Gathering my courage, I breathed deeply and spoke, revelling in the sound of my voice for the first time since months. "My Lady… I apologize for this little subterfuge." I raised my hands to my hood and pulled it down, revealing my face. "But Magge has never existed." Éowyn watched me in astonishment. "It was Morwrei all along."
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.