Eyes Wide Open
It is good to be home, Éomer thought with relief as his company approached the heavy wooden gates of Edoras, though he still could not help feeling a little discouraged over the results of the latest orc raids. He had heard the rumor just days before that another band had crossed the Anduin and was heading for a little-guarded settlement just west of the Entwash River, where many of their herds and studs were kept. He had immediately offered to lead his éored against them, but the king's strange unwillingness to take any immediate action had cost them precious time, and they had arrived too late.
"It is not your fault, you know." A voice broke into his thoughts, and he glanced over to see that Théodred had fallen back to ride evenly with him. He had met up with his cousin's company on the way home and the two had welcomed the rare chance to ride together.
"I know," Éomer said. "I only wish that we had arrived sooner. The villagers cannot continue to defend themselves against such a constant onslaught, if this continues."
"Think no more on it tonight, cousin. There will be time for further counsel later, and it would be wise to enjoy the rest while we can," Théodred replied, clapping the younger man on the shoulder. Éomer's spirits did brighten at the thought of a hot meal and a real bed to sleep in that night, and the two men rode through the gates together, greeting the guards as they entered.
Éomer dismounted just before he reached the stable and led Firefoot to his stall. The grey stallion whickered in delight as Éomer filled the feedbag with some fresh grain before he carefully removed the tack and rubbed him down. He emerged from the stall as the same time as Théodred and fell into step beside him. "I still think it strange that they only take the black horses," Éomer said.
Théodred glanced over at his younger cousin. "As do I." Éomer started to reply, when he heard a thunk, followed by a string of muffled curses. Both Théodred and Éomer recognized the voice immediately, and Théodred grinned. "Go ahead. I will meet you in the hall." Éomer nodded, and walked to the other side of the barn.
Sure enough, Éowyn was there in the deserted stable yard. Her back was to him as she practiced firing arrows into a bale of hay in a rather sloppy fashion; several arrows had missed the target and had become imbedded in the stable wall. He could not help smiling. His sister had always had an intense desire to prove that she could hold her own against any of the men in the art of fighting; even he would admit she was quite proficient in wielding a sword, and she had learned to use a shield in a satisfactory manner as well. But the bow… she had never quite gotten the hang of it, and he knew it irritated her terribly. He could almost picture the determined gleam in her eyes as he watched. Her back was to him now, and he was able to quietly sneak behind her. He thought briefly about greeting her, but then looked at the wall and decided he valued his own life too greatly, and so he waited until just after she released the arrow. The arrow hit the hay bale this time, though it was not even touching the cloth target she had tacked to it. "You are pulling your elbow too far to the right," he said, knowing the danger had passed. "You need to pull straight back."
She was so startled that she dropped the bow, causing him to laugh. She whirled around, anger and frustration clouding her fair face. The storm clouds disappeared just as quickly.
"Éomer!" she cried out as she ran over and nearly knocked him over in a wild hug. Her eyes were shining as she smiled at him, and he suddenly realized with a shock that this was the first time he had really seen her smile in quite some time. Undoubtedly because of the King, he thought. Their uncle had fallen strangely ill some time ago, and since Éomer's promotion to one of the Marshals, the brunt of his care had fallen to Éowyn as his condition had worsened. He was still surprised to see the grave look in her eyes—so much older than a maiden who was only in her twenty-first summer should look, he thought.
He pushed that thought aside for the time being as he returned her hug. "It is good to see you too, little sister," he laughed, "although I see your aim still leaves something to be desired."
She playfully swatted him on the arm. "Very funny," she said, though her expression belied the more stern tone of her voice. "When did you get back? I was looking for you all day, ever since I heard that your éored was approaching."
"Just a little while ago," he replied. "I came to find you as soon as I had taken care of Firefoot."
"What happened? Did you find them?"
Éomer sighed a little and ran his hand through his blonde hair in frustration. "No, not this time. We searched from the Entwash to the Anduin, but we were unable to find those accursed orcs. Nor did we find any trace of the horses they stole. All we were able to do was assist the wounded and help to bury the dead."
Éowyn frowned. "Do they still take only the black ones?"
Éomer nodded. "If this continues, not a dark horse will be left in Rohan. And I hate to think of what they do to the poor creatures."
Éowyn bowed her head in understanding, and for a short time neither spoke. Éomer finally broke the silence. "What of our uncle? Has he shown any sign of recovery?"
A look of bitter frustration rested on Éowyn's face. "Hardly. If anything, it seems that he grows a little worse with every passing day." Éomer glanced over and could see she was fighting tears as she looked up at him. "It is so…unnatural."
"Unnatural? What do you mean?" Éomer asked.
Her voice grew softer. "Do you not think it strange? It has been two years since he first fell ill, and in those two years the orc raids have multiplied. They grow bolder; it is almost as if they know the weakest place to strike and aim directly for it."
"Of course they would. Any military unit would do the same thing."
"Perhaps," she said, sounding unconvinced. "But is it not also strange that his illness and the greater number of orcs appeared about the same time that Gríma became his head counselor? And that, despite all the healers can do for him, he does not even begin to recover?"
Éomer's head jerked up. "Surely you are not suggesting that he has anything to do with it?"
A defiant light came in her eyes. "Maybe I am."
"It is merely a coincidence, Éowyn; it must be. Do not blame him for something that is out of any man's control," Éomer said in an attempt to calm her down. Undoubtedly having to spend all her time looking after Théoden was wearing on her.
"How do you know?" she snapped. "You would not see it, because you are never there. The things he says to the King… he is always telling him to wait to take any action, that the raids are of little consequence and will soon cease." Éowyn paused, then added, "And then there are the messengers."
"What messengers?" Éomer asked.
She lowered her voice even further, and Éomer was surprised at the intensity in her eyes. "Every time you or Théodred go out to fight or someone sends a report of a new attack, he disappears for the morning. Several times I have seen a horse leaving the gate soon after this, heading northwest. Then he always returns and acts as if nothing had happened. I wanted to know what he was doing, so I followed him one time."
"Éowyn!" he exclaimed, shocked that his sister would resort to spying.
"It was the only way!" she protested. "I was unable to hear what the exchange was about, but I saw Gríma hand some sort of sealed letter to a man in a dark cloak. It looked like the man handed something to him as well, but I could not see what it was."
Éomer frowned as the implications of what she said struck home. "You are not saying that he is a traitor? That is a very serious charge."
"I do not know. All I know is that I do not trust him at all, Éomer." She looked up at him again, her grey eyes wide open. He was surprised to see a trace of fear in them.
"You are afraid of him." It was more of a statement than a question.
"No, I am not!" she protested. Éomer just looked at her steadily. "Perhaps a little," she finally admitted, looking down as if she were ashamed. "I am afraid to leave Uncle Théoden alone with him, but being left alone with the two of them is almost as bad. The way Gríma looks at me sometimes…" her voice trailed off.
A surge of anger flashed through Éomer. "What did he do?"
"Nothing," Éowyn said quickly. Éomer gave her a hard look, but knew his sister would not lie about such a thing. "Truly, Éomer, he has never laid a hand on me. And I am not the only one who does not trust him—some of the men in the king's guard have taken to calling him Wormtongue behind his back. A fitting name, if you ask me," she added with a derisive snort.
Despite the increasing seriousness of the conversation, Éomer was unable to suppress a laugh. "Very ladylike of you, Éowyn," he teased, thinking it might be safer to change the subject. "You will never find yourself a husband if you insist on sounding more like a horse than a lady of the court."
Éowyn quickly took up the challenge. "Not necessarily; I often hear the complaint that the men of this land spend more time with their horses than they do with their wives. And, my dear brother, I do not see you making any more of an effort to find yourself a wife," she said, raising an eyebrow.
"I could hardly think of marrying now; someone must keep those filthy orcs from trampling our lands," Éomer replied.
"Nor could I; someone has to protect you from all those poor, disappointed, lovesick maidens!" Éowyn retorted, mischief gleaming in her steel-grey eyes for an instant before her grin faded. "Besides, then there would be no one left to tend to our uncle."
Éomer nodded, strangely saddened at how quickly Éowyn's spirits had sunk again. But then, he reflected, it seemed that life in the Riddermark was growing darker with each passing day as well. "Come, sister, will you accompany me back to the hall?" he asked, changing the subject. He had his duty to return to, as did she.
Éowyn nodded assent and hurried to gather her arrows, and the two fell silent until they reached the doors of Meduseld.
Háma, captain of the king's guard, greeted them at the door. "My lord Éomer! I am glad to see that you have safely returned," he said, bowing low.
Éomer laughed. "Come, Háma, there is no need for such formality!" Háma's face broke into a wide grin as the two friends clasped arms. "How is your wife? And your daughter?" Éomer asked.
"Both are doing very well," Háma replied, pride in his voice. "How did the battle go?"
"Very ill," Éomer growled, still feeling frustrated.
"I see." Háma frowned. "Théodred has already given his report, and the king is expecting you, Éomer. And be careful what you say," he cautioned, lowering his voice. Éomer must have looked confused, because Háma added, "There is something strange at work in there these days. I do not rightly know what it is… just be careful."
Éomer glanced down at Éowyn, who gave him a look that clearly said I told you so. The guards opened the doors, and the two of them entered. The hall seemed even gloomier than when he had left. The only illumination was the late afternoon light pouring in from high windows, highlighting every speck of dust that floated through its beams, and the hearth fire in the center of the floor. Éomer looked intently at the king, and was surprised to see that he had seemingly aged a little further even in the short time that he had been gone.
"Lady Éowyn, why were you gone so long? The king was distressed to find you missing," a low voice hissed. Éomer's gaze jerked to the steps before the throne, where a dark-haired man dressed in black sat. Gríma.
"Forgive me, my lord," Éowyn said, curtsying to the king. "I lost track of time. It will not happen again." Éomer noted that her gaze never left Théoden as she spoke, as if she was ignoring Gríma altogether. He acknowledged her words with an almost imperceptible nod, and Éomer was surprised to see the relief on her face.
His uncle's eyes now turned to him. "Éomer." There was something strange in his gaze, Éomer mused, almost as if the king was looking through him instead of at him.
Pushing his thoughts aside, he bowed. "My lord."
Gríma spoke again. "The king wishes to hear your report, Lord Éomer."
"We arrived too late, my lord. The orcs had already gone; they took several horses and killed about ten men. Many more in the village were wounded. None in my éored were lost, but we only arrived in time to assist in burying the dead." Éomer closed his eyes briefly as the horrendous sights that had met them as they rode up flashed through his mind—smoke rising from the charred remains of nearly every building in the village, the glassy-eyed stares of men whose bodies had been mutilated as they fell defending their homes…
It took him a moment to realize that Gríma was speaking again. "'Tis a pity you could not ride any faster."
Éomer felt a rush of anger surge through him. "We rode as fast as we could without killing our horses. Perhaps if we had been allowed to leave when we first heard of the trouble, we would have arrived in time to be of more help."
Gríma's eyes darkened. "You dare to question the king's judgment in this matter, Éomer?"
He could feel his sister's eyes on him, pleading with him not to say anything rash. He forced his temper down as much as he could, and turned to Théoden. "I do not question your judgment, my lord. I only ask that we be allowed to take quicker action the next time this happens."
"It is not wise to simply rush into battle, Éomer. Time is needed to determine the best course of action," Gríma said.
"And if one delays too long, the choice of what course to take is lost," Éomer retorted. For a moment, the two locked eyes in a fierce staredown.
It was the king who broke the tense silence. "Enough! We will deal with those decisions when the time comes. Éomer, you are obviously wearied from your journey. Go take your rest, and we will talk more of this matter tomorrow."
"As you wish, my lord," Éomer said before bowing and departing. He could feel Gríma's glare burning into his back with every step.
Night was falling over Edoras, and Éomer watched the ever-darkening sky from a window in the hall just around the corner from his family's quarters. It was all he could do to keep himself from pacing. He prided himself on being a man of action, and not knowing what to do—or if he would be allowed to do anything at all—irritated him to no end. He could not help feeling a little bit of guilt as well; he had been so focused on destroying the orcs that threatened his people that he had never even considered the possibility that danger might come from within his own home as well.
He was a warrior, not a diplomat, and had always had a natural mistrust for those who used words as their weapons. It was too easy to twist words. And there was certainly no love lost between himself and Gríma. He was not so blind that he had failed to notice how closely his every action in battle was scrutinized as of late—especially in comparison to Théodred. It was almost as if Gríma was trying to drive a wedge between himself and his cousin, or at the very least discredit him in the eyes of their King. So why is it that I did not suspect something sooner? The more he thought about it, the more he began to believe that his sister was right, and that somehow, Gríma did have some part in his uncle's illness. But he had no idea what to do about it, or even where to begin to look for proof.
He heard footsteps down the hall, and snapped back to attention. A door opened, and he heard Éowyn wish Théoden a good night. The door closed, and Éomer was just about to sink back into his own thoughts when he heard a second voice.
"What a pity…it seems like such a waste for one so young and strong to have to spend all her time playing nursemaid to a dying old man," Gríma's oily voice said. Éomer's hands involuntarily clenched into fists as he listened.
He could almost see the anger flashing in Éowyn's eyes as she exclaimed, "He is not dying! And whatever it is you did to him…what you are trying to do to me, it will not work. I will not allow it."
Silently, cautiously, Éomer moved until he was able to see just around the corner, and he saw with relief that Gríma's back was to him. Despite her defiant tone, Éowyn's face wore the wild-eyed look of an animal that had gotten itself cornered and was desperately seeking a way out. Now Gríma spoke again: "My lady, how could you possibly think I did anything to the king? I have never been anything but a faithful servant."
"You are a lying snake," she retorted bitterly, and Éomer silently marveled that she alone had the courage to say what she believed that everyone else in the court thought. Not just her, he thought then, remembering Háma's words. "And I am not your lady," she continued, pulling him from his thoughts once more. "Now please, just go!"
Gríma's voice lowered to a more threatening growl as he leaned closer towards her. "I would be more careful about throwing such accusations around if I were you," he said in a low hiss, his hand gripping her arm tightly.
Éowyn opened her mouth to respond, but Éomer could no longer keep silent and stepped out from around the corner, his hand on the hilt of his sword. "My sister said to leave her alone, Gríma," he said.
A look of gratitude briefly flashed across Éowyn's face before settling once more into a defiant glare. Gríma turned to look at him, his eyes drifting to Éomer's sword, then he released her before roughly pushing past Éowyn and leaving.
Éomer and Éowyn both looked down the hall and around the corner to make sure that he had truly gone. Only when she was satisfied that they were alone did Éowyn relax. "Thank you," she whispered, practically shaking in relief.
Éomer simply nodded, then put an arm around her shoulders. He opened the door to his room, pulled her inside, and looked back into the hall one last time before shutting the door. "I owe you an apology, Éowyn," he said quietly, turning to face his sister. "It seems that you are right about Gríma after all."
"So what can we do about it?" she asked; he could see on her face that she was still shaken by the encounter.
"I know not," Éomer replied, frustration welling up in him again. "I suppose for now all we can do is wait. Treason is a serious charge, so we will need a good deal of proof before we can say anything before the king. I will see what I can find out about his dealings within the court—I know that Háma can be trusted, and he knows almost everything that happens around here."
"And what about me? What can I do?" Éowyn asked again.
Éomer frowned thoughtfully. "Try to keep him away from the king as much as you can. Make sure that Gríma is never left alone with him. And keep your eyes open for any suspicious behavior." A shadow crossed Éowyn's face, and Éomer realized that asking her to do that meant she would also have to be around Gríma more. "I will be watching him too, Éowyn, as often as I can be here. Théodred will too; though he has not said as much, I do not believe that he trusts Gríma either." Or, if Théodred had not already begun to suspect what he had not seen, at the very least he would not once he learned that Gríma's eye had turned towards his beloved cousin, Éomer silently added to himself.
"All right," Éowyn said reluctantly. "I suppose that all we can do is watch, and wait." Her face plainly showed that she did not like the idea at all.
"I suppose so," Éomer said, looking down at her. He put his hand on her shoulder and added, "I will not let him hurt you, Éowyn; I give you my word." She finally relaxed again, and Éomer silently vowed that he would keep his eyes wide open for any sign that his sister's safety was being threatened.
He could only hope it was a promise he would be able to keep.
A/N: This is an older one, that I posted awhile ago, but I've recently re-edited it to fix a few minor canon problems and get it to flow better. This story is set about 2 1/2-three years before Theoden's healing in The Two Towers. According to the account in the Unfinished Tales, Theoden fell ill about five years before TTT, and the illness very well could have been induced or made worse by subtle poisons given to him by Grima. It also mentioned Grima trying to play Theodred and Eomer off of each other, and discrediting Eomer in particular, so I've added a few small things to reflect that better.