Notes: This story takes place prior to the Hobbits' return to the Shire, in March of 3019. References are, of course, The Lord of the Rings and the Unfinished Tales (specific chapters of the former are "The King of the Golden Hall," "The Road to Isengard," "The Voice of Saruman," and "Many Partings") Although there's no definitive proof for it, I like the implication that Gríma physically poisoned Théoden as well, and am working off of it for the purposes of this story. The final quotations by Saruman are Tolkien's and come from "The Scouring of the Shire."
There are many ways to play Gríma, depending on one's interpretation. This story, being from Gríma's point of view, gives him a more sympathetic treatment.
The end was coming. He knew that, if nothing else. They would come from the East where the Shadow had broken with their swords and bows and his master could not stand against them. Saruman would take to the road again, if they let him live, and his faithful Gríma would go with him, no more now than a dog at his side.
He heard his master outside at night, barking orders to the men who now did his bidding. He had no use for the poisoning of kings anymore, nor for courtly advisors capable of using art and subtlety rather than brutal fists. There were no kings to seduce here—there were only criminals and slaves to surround them, and he, bent before the small fire in the hut he'd been allotted, was the worst of all.
His bones had turned against him. It had begun in Orthanc when the trees imprisoned them—damned creatures out of legend, myths out of time in which he had never believed until they accosted him at the tower. Perhaps Saruman had begun to poison him, too, to reward him for having lost Théoden to him. Certainly he had never been considered handsome; his maltreatment at the hands of the king's men, even before he had turned traitor to the Mark, had left him with no illusions about that. But in the tower his reflection became one of abject horror: all color seeped from his skin and his face began to age, until he resembled the king himself. But even Théoden had maintained some strange dignity in his illness; there was no such mercy for Gríma. And after his skin wilted his bones seemed to bend, aching when he attempted to stand erect with such intensity that he was soon forced to walk with a halting limp, then a shuffle, until finally he was doubled over, half-crawling.
Lifting the palantír had required the last of the strength his hands could muster. Already when the wizard came to Orthanc his fingers had grown stiff as those of an old man, and he all but spent them in that final effort. He heard them beyond the door talking—his hated master, his betrayed king, the wizard who had robbed him. Their voices burned his ears as if they heaped curses upon him. He was not given free reign in Orthanc; Saruman, ever distrustful, kept him at his heels, and only the wizard's summons could have forced him to let his servant alone.
He shuffled to the window, pressed his face to the dirty pane. For a moment the sight of bright blonde hair in the sunlight gave him hope—she had come!—but there was her brother's face; he reeled backward in disgust. She had been caught in that assault on Helm's Deep, for all he knew, cloven in two by a Uruk's blade. He would not have been at all astonished to learn that she had ridden forth from Edoras with her kinsmen. And now here they stood before him and she was not to be seen, and abruptly her death seemed certain to him.
His master's voice came once more, deep and foreboding as an Orc's drum. He hated the sound of it, hated every word that passed through the man's lips. He found himself trembling and almost lost his balance. Quickly he grabbed hold of the edge of his master's black table, and in doing so his fingertips grazed it—the dark glass that so often consumed his master's thoughts, the terrible globe in which he saw the minds of all around him. He had used it in the past to monitor Gríma's progress with the king but had never permitted him to look into it himself, and now it was within his grasp, emptily black and unprotected.
Would he see her, he wondered, if he were to look into it now? Would he see her ruined corpse, her cold and lifeless face, lying in the ruin of the Deep. No; he would give no more credence to the thought. When the king rode out he surely would have made her stay behind in Meduseld, and if the glass could truly show him whatever he wanted to know, would he not then see her as she had been when he left her, lovelier and more stern than a queen? Stern and waiting for her uncle to return, waiting for her brother, but never waiting for him.
The glass remained dark. There was no use in the attempt; he had ceased to trust all wizardry. But it might yet serve him, though not by its intended purpose.
He lifted the ball into his gnarled hands, almost buckling with the weight of it. It seemed as if the ball itself moved: there was a small vibration and a hint of light within its dark center, but he dared not look at it. He unlatched the window, chanced a glimpse outside. Several feet below him were the wizard and his master; the latter seemed almost crumpled in stature, his staff broken in his hands.
With a straining grunt he heaved the ball through the window. He did not care whom it hit, if indeed he had managed to aim correctly. Even if it left both wizards' heads uncracked it would hurt his master nonetheless, for without it he was blind, little better than an old man who had once been powerful and now sank into obscurity.
He had paid dearly for the loss of the palantír. Saruman had no spells for him when he dragged himself back into the tower and mounted the stairs to find him, nor had he a staff with which to beat him, but his hands, unlike Gríma's, retained all their old strength. His face was bloody when his master finished with him, his bones heavy and sore. He never stood fully upright again after that day.
The fire provided the only light in the hut, and the only heat. His master's conditions were only slightly better. When they brought ruin down on the Shire they also brought it down upon themselves. He deserved it, he knew. He deserved it and at times he enjoyed it. A strange thrill passed through him with every misfortune, a painful happiness like that which could only come with a certain degree of vindication. For years he had lived in dread of the day his transgressions found him, and when at last they did a sense of contentment settled over him; he accepted the torment he now endured, he welcomed it, he reveled in it.
It would not last much longer. Even if they did not come for years yet, he felt certain he would not live to see the summer. He no longer remembered his own age, for the years now seemed a vast collection of disappointments and abuse; his body was twisted and feeble. With food so scarce Saruman seemed content to let him starve, though often he accused him of having eaten the poor creature he'd been forced to kill here. He grew weaker by the day. One night soon, he felt, he would go to sleep on the floor and never awaken.
He hoped his death, at least, would be sweet.
He knew his sins well, even regretted most of them. What he had done to his king was unforgivable. But never had he acted out of malice. He never wanted Théoden to be harmed, though he himself had put the poison into his mind, his drink. Always there were his master's reassurances that all would be well in the end, that the king would be somehow bettered for having undergone this humiliation, that Gríma himself would at last receive the recompense he deserved for his maltreatment at the hands of the men of Rohan, culminating finally in the Lady they all hoped to one day have. She would love him, his master had promised, she would love him and desire him as deeply as he desired her, and regardless of what happened to the rest of the earth, whether it was consumed in darkness or turned over for Saruman's personal amusement, they would be spared. From youth he had been despised, spit upon, and his master promised retribution, provided only that he serve him faithfully.
In the beginning he feared himself too great a coward to go through with it. When first he tipped the phial into the king's cup his hand had trembled, almost spilling it onto the floor. But he quickly learned resolve, and soon enough he committed his betrayal with ease. The king fell under his hand, his voice, and all of his men were subjected to his own will. And the king's decline brought her ever closer to him, until at last it seemed he spent every minute with her.
The king would never understand; no one would. No other of his men had suffered as terribly as Gríma had. None of them knew his utter dejection. Deep in the night he alone was without kin, companion, or lover—no laughter rang out in his ears, no woman's hand graced his flesh. The only affection he received from them was pity and even that was diluted with their scorn, for always they looked down their noses on him and called him by the accursed name Wormtongue. Like a servant he was treated, a servant begging for crumbs rather than the king's advisor. And so he had humbled the king, had poured into his ear his own will, and soon all the country yielded to him. When any man disdained him he saw him punished; when a man rebelled against him, there were the prisons.
All for you, my lady.
If there had been an easier way he would have taken it. He had loved Théoden once, had wanted to serve him in earnest. But the wizard had offered him more and without the expense of what little dignity he possessed. And Saruman knew a reward greater than any to which the king would ever consent: whether he had seen it in his dark crystal or if a man's mind did indeed lay open to him, he had known of the shieldmaiden and his love for her, and it was he, not Théoden, who could give that to him.
A traitor, yes, but no devil, no wicked beast as they had accused him of being. His crimes were not the worst that ever been committed for the sake of preserving his own honor. He had not maimed or murdered in Rohan, nor had he sought to take the lady against her will. He had waited patiently for his prize and in the end had been robbed of it, cast down like a dog once more.
She had not tried to stop them, had not petitioned them to show him mercy. It was the king, the very one whom he had most wronged, who had moved to spare his life by offering him redemption. And he had spit at him. Though chastened he had known they would never accept him; had he met the king's challenge and ridden out to Helm's Deep, the men would have looked upon him with even more disdain than before, and he would not suffer that. His master had taught him dignity enough for that, least. With but one last thought of her stern face he fled, and in so doing accepted his doom.
And yet it would not come to him so very easily. When Saruman demanded that they quit Isengard, reduced now to mere beggars, the wizard had found them once again, and once again some clemency was extended to him. But not for any love of him. There had been pity in the company's eyes when they looked upon him, pity enough to burn his flesh. And seeing it all temptation to do as they bid and abandon his master faded; Saruman kicked him and obediently he followed—he would rather have a cruel master than one who deemed him so pathetic, so revolting.
He deserved their scorn and perhaps even their pity, but never their forgiveness. His betrayal ran too deep.
But what if she offered it? What if it had been she who had offered to forgive him before the doors of Meduseld, what if she had asked of him as Théoden had: Stay with me and govern Edoras in my uncle's stead with a just hand, and thus prove yourself worthy? Could he have accepted absolution then? If it meant having her still, would he have renounced his wicked allegiance then and there and sworn it again to the Mark?
He wanted to believe his resolve would have been just as strong, but he knew it was a lie. Always she had been his weakness; Saruman had known it and used it to his sole advantage. If for even one moment her eyes had filled with such mercy for him he would have withered at her feet, pleading forgiveness like a disgusting fool.
He shuddered at the thought of her. All for you, my lady, and all for nothing.
News of her had finally come, born by rumors from the east and reported by those of his master's men willing to perform so small a favor for him. For months he had feared her death, had even begun to privately mourn her, weeping when his eyes would allow it. And now they said she'd resurfaced in Gondor, having ridden to war in guise of a man, and then again in the Mark, where she had been betrothed to Gondor's Steward. He rejoiced in secret for her, though he understood it meant he would never see her again. Better an honored soldier as he himself had refused to be than dead; better belonging to another man than lying dead to rot in the sun with a thousand stinking corpses. He had long ago surrendered the hope that she would be his.
He had truly lost everything now, as his master reminded him whenever he feared abandonment. His king was dead, his lady gone to Ithilien, his own body slowly deteriorating—all that was left for him was Saruman, the only person who had never pitied him, had never offered him mercy. He knew his master needed him and though Gríma despised him he was not strong enough, in body or in spirit, to leave.
But if she were to come to him…
It was a ridiculous fantasy. As he lay half-dead by the fire each night he imagined her appearing at his side, dressed in white as she had always been, hair flowing in golden waves at her sides—far more beautiful than any devilish elf-woman she was, more knowing than any wizard. No husband stood beside her, no attendants. She came to him alone but was unafraid as she had often been in Meduseld, and he saw no disgust in her eyes, only beauty and kindness.
"My poor Gríma…"
Her hands on his face, warm and soothing, gentle as if he were her child, her lover. She would smile for him and with but a word from his trembling lips she would understand—
All for you, my lady.
—and she would bless him, would at last forgive him. He would weep helplessly at her feet and she would not send him away: she would guide him to stand, and suddenly the pain in his bones would fade. He would be a man once more and she would be his lady, and in her arms he would know the life he should have had.
He dared a crooked smile, thrust his pitiful hands closer to the fire. It would never happen. In all likelihood she had forgotten him, or else struggled to do so. But he would have this last happiness before the end. His master could not take it from him like he had the last of their food, nor beat it out of him.
That hated voice again. He scowled in the darkness and, whimpering, put his hands to his ears, but the voice penetrated his flesh, reverberated in his brain until he could scarcely think.
He moved painfully to the door, peeked outside. His master stood facing a number of Hobbits, probably a group that had refused to work. Whatever he wanted of his servant Gríma did not know, but the memory of the last time he had been forced to deal with a Halfling sent a shudder down his wracked spine. He would not be so manipulated again.
For you, my lady.
He opened the door and, tucking a knife into his filthy cloak, went shuffling into the night.
More notes: Gríma does ask for pity from Théoden in "The King of the Golden Hall," but in this story he has done so more as a plea to be spared from war and death rather than a genuine desire for it.