Dark clouds were brewing overhead. I could see them looming ominously as I urged my horse to move faster. It had been raining hard at Helm's Deep, and I was soaking already; should more rain come, I would undoubtedly catch a chill. To suffer from such an illness could potentially be fatal, alone as I was and riding in the midst of abandoned country. However, I had many miles to travel before I would reach my destination, and I knew that no matter how hard I rode, the rain would never wait for me.
My husband Faramir was camping on the edges of Fangorn Forest with a large party of his Ithilien Rangers. They were searching for one of their number, the youngest, whose name was Angaran. He had been sent on a scouting mission and had disappeared, his trail leading far into the land of Rohan. He never returned, much to the chagrin of Faramir. Angaran's ailing mother had placed the boy in Faramir's charge when he was very young, and Faramir saw Angaran in a sort of fatherly way. Knowing Angaran could be in danger had caused him great distress, and nothing I had said or done had soothed him.
Secretly, in my heart, I was not displeased that Faramir was to travel towards my home country. It had been overlong since I had been permitted to ride freely through the plains of my homeland, and, trapped as I often was inside the walls of Minas Tirith, I desired the vast, empty expanses that Rohan offered. When Faramir had told me of his intention to depart, I begged to ride with him. At first he flatly refused. He could not afford to bring me along with him; I would only be a burden; I could potentially find myself in serious danger. I persisted, and at last Faramir relented.
His riders often grumbled that I should not be with them, but it was all in good humor, for Faramir's riders loved me overmuch and were apt to spoil me. They played silly tricks to impress me and often asked with deep awe of my battle with the Witch King and the illness that soon befell me after. I soon grew weary of repeating the story each night, but they were good listeners, and I cannot deny that I appreciated having such an attentive audience.
In Gondor, when Faramir was gone, many of the women sneered down on me and spoke of my achievements as though they were indecent. "Men's work," they would say, "And woman's folly." They often said such things of me; they believed me inferior because of my Rohirric lineage and my inability to perform any of the usual domestic tasks. I cannot cook or embroider or draw; I am fine enough at dancing, but not elegant or graceful on my feet. My singing voice is fair enough, but deeper and, according to most standards, unfeminine. As far as Gondorian society was concerned, I had nothing worth offering their sacred Steward. Sometimes I felt that way myself.
I never revealed my feelings to Faramir, of course. He was not at home often enough for me to speak to him deeply and in earnest about anything. When he was with me, we spent our too brief times together celebrating and enjoying, taking nothing seriously. But the brevity of our life together had grown tedious, and I longed for something solid and strong, something deep and rich that I knew could withstand the trials of all lifetimes - something I had thought I had experienced with Faramir towards the ending of the War of the Ring. The strong love I had so cherished between Faramir and I seemed to have faded to a certain fondness, as of friends; and I grew weary of pretending that it was otherwise.
I had hoped to have chance to speak to him of my feelings, in the hopes that he might soothe my fears, but travel had proved rough and tiring, and when at last we retired to our tent he was soon asleep. I had not the heart to speak to him of such matters when his own heart was so heavy with other things. He fretted so for Angaran, and I often felt a wave of sympathy for his pain.
Yet as the weeks had passed I soon felt as though I truly were an extra burden to the group. I was not nearly as swift and silent as they in my skirts, and I had never been trained to move as they did through the shadows of trees and cloud, scouting and finding marks that would lead them to their prey. I was not capable of these things and there was not time to teach me. Instead, I spoke to Faramir one night of visiting a few of the places dearest to my heart in Rohan, and then returning to meet him as swiftly as I would. He was more easily persuaded in this, but grew angry when I insisted that I ride alone. "Times are still dangerous, Éowyn," he had warned me. "I will not see you come to harm, with the blame at my hands."
"And I would not burden you further," I said. "You can spare no men now; you have said so yourself for many nights past. Have you forgotten that your wife defeated the Witch King himself and lived to tell the tale? You need not fear for me."
He would have argued more, but he was exhausted and frustrated. I think, too, that he knew I could defend myself if the need arose, though I doubted it would. Rohan was kept clear of the few remaining beats of Sauron. My brother saw expertly to his protection. None who lived in Rohan had need to fear for their lives.
I parted ways with Faramir and rode for Edoras, there to meet my brother and his new wife, Lothiriel. I was greeted with great joy and welcomed with a magnificent feast. I told Éomer of life in Gondor when he asked, and brought him news of King Elessar and his Elven bride, Arwen. I spoke a little of my life with Faramir but was careful not to mention my dissatisfaction with my lot. Éomer had worried overmuch for me since I was but a girl, and I knew it pleased him to see me so settled in life.
I stayed with him a week, and then departed again. There were tears at our parting and my brother's promise that he would visit me in Minas Tirith soon, and then I was on my way. Éomer had offered to send a small contingent of Riders with me to see me on my way, but I politely declined, and he knew better than to argue with me. I had made plans for the rest of my travels, and to bring along even a small number of Riders would ruin my chance for solitude.
Ever since the ending of the War of the Ring, I had had the most morbid desire to return to Helm's Deep, the site of Rohan's strongest victory in years. Even more important, Helm's Deep had seen the defeat of Saruman the White - Saruman, and his most prominent and dangerous servant, Gríma called Wormtongue.
Gríma was a plague upon my memory; yet he was as a shadow to the light - seemingly necessary for me to be whole. It had always been thus, even when I had been a mere girl. Gríma, a dark outcast despised by all but my uncle and myself, had been a friend, sharing with me interests unknown to girl-children like myself. Yet there was something strange and foreboding about him – something black and hidden within his nature that I had always sensed beneath the surface. Yet I trusted to him, as did my uncle, and I forced my feelings aside.
But when I reached womanhood, that black stain upon his soul forced its way out, in the form of an aching, painful love that began to blossom within him for me. And though I admired him in many ways, my fear was the greater, and my cousin's tales of Gríma's wickedness quashed what affection I felt for the wayward counsellor. The son of Gálmód had not been evil in those days; I knew this for certain. But I had believed, and in my folly had turned from him.
Yet his love for me did not die, but grew the stronger. My withdrawal of my affections nearly destroyed him. Despair drove him into Saruman's service, and into shadow; and when his bargain had been made an irreparable rift had been created, parting us for eternity.
I had cared for him, once; whether it was love or merely a young girl's infatuation is to be debated. I had felt something; but I had buried that something in the Glittering Caves at Helm's Deep, when the battle raged above my head and I was left helpless down below. When I returned to that place, the bitterness that I had thought I had released and forgotten forever came back full force.
Despite this, the visit itself had not really been very interesting; the place was the same as it had always been, except for several new memorials to those who had died in the Battle for Helm's Deep during the War of the Ring. The walls were beginning to fall into disrepair, I had seen, and the statue of Helm Hammerhand was crumbling. After making a note that I should tell my brother of this when I saw him next, I had departed during a great rainstorm, which had abated but threatened to break out again at any moment.
I had hoped to arrive back at my husband's camp within the day, but the weather obviously had no desire to cooperate. I knew that I must seek shelter at once, or catch a chill and sicken. The only shelter nearby, however, was the Tower of Orthanc, former home of Saruman the White and all his servants, including my uncle's traitorous counsellor. The place, as far as I knew, was currently abandoned; not even the Ents worked there any longer. Saruman had passed into shadow long ago, as had Gríma.
I did not relish the thought of waiting out the storm at the place of Gríma's death, knowing how often that night my thoughts were certain to stray to him, and how I would act the day afterwards when I rejoined Faramir. However, I had no other option. This was plain to me as Orthanc's pinnacle and the broken walls of Isengard came into view, for at that moment a roll thunder roared threateningly above me. I resigned myself to my night's lodgings and pushed my horse to again ride harder.
Fortunately, my horse was swift and I managed to arrive at Isengard before the downpour. I silently prayed the doors to the Tower remained unlocked as I rode across the empty expanse of what was once Saruman's giant mechanical machine-filled lawn and arrived at the stairs leading to the door. I dismounted from my horse, found a place to safely tie her, and then vaulted up the stairs and to the door.
Eerily, it swung open before my hand even touched it. I hesitated before going in. Perhaps staying here was not such a good idea after all? But a flash of lightning cut across the sky again and quickly made up my mind. I hurried inside to the relative safety of Orthanc.
The door closed behind me, again without my assistance, and I was left standing in the entryway, with no idea where to go or what to do. It was terrifying and uncanny. The place was silent as a tomb and devoid of almost any object; I could almost feel the presence of Saruman lurking in every corner. He may have died and disappeared, but this place still belonged to him. It struck a sense of quiet horror in me; I was awed and repulsed at the same time, intensely fearful but struck by the immense power this place held. I could understand why Gríma must have thought that the master of this tower could never fall, and why he would choose to follow this man's path instead of his country's. Had I been coerced into coming here, I might well have fallen into Saruman's trap and bent to his will as Gríma did.
I did not wish to venture further, but I dared not remain in the entryway. Uruk-hai and other enemies of the Free People might still abound here; it would be safer for me I remained hidden. Yet I did not feel as though I would be safe. Indeed, I felt as though I would instead be putting myself in greater danger by wandering further into the tower. I gathered my courage and began up the stairway.
The stairs were black onyx, like everything around me, and they spiraled up and up and up, and continued up so high that it made me dizzy to even attempt to look. After a set amount of stairs (about twenty, I think) there would be a passageway off in one direction, which led, I assumed, to various rooms. When I arrived at the first of these passageways, I entered it.
I had been correct; the passageway contained nine rooms, four along the right side, four along the left side, and one directly at the end. I looked into each one. The four on the right were empty. Three of the rooms on the left were also empty, but one of them was locked. There was a keyhole, however, and I peered through this curiously. Through it I saw a dark floor, stained with some sort of substance (I dared not allow my imagine to guess what it was), and the walls were lined with bones. I shuddered and back away from that door; clearly, it was locked for a reason.
The last door at the end of the hallway was unlocked, but I was hesitant to open it after having glimpsed what was kept in the other one. However, curiosity got the better of me, and I entered.
I found that this room was very large, but also very cluttered. There were tables covered with all different types of things. Books and papers lay scattered everywhere, and strange gadgets laid on many, if not all, of the tables. There were scales of all kinds and bottles full of various liquids and powders that, I guessed, Saruman used in his potions and inventions. There was one table tucked away in a corner caught my eye. It was rounded to fit its shape exactly, for it was quite unlike the rest.
It was very neatly ordered, with several books and pieces of parchment, and a few bottles all lined tidily in a row. Each bottle had a neatly written label glued on it. I recognized the handwriting almost instantly; this table had once been Gríma Wormtongue's.
I approached Gríma's desk with great trepidation. I did not want to see these things that had once been his, but somehow, I could not resist a passing glance. There were, of course, many books (the former counsellor was a great lover of books); some, I assumed, were journals, in which he recorded his thoughts and deeds. There were bottles of various colored inks, and potions for his many ailments and the many ailments of others. There was a bottle full of quills with which to write and a stack of blank parchment on the corner of the desk. All of it was carefully stacked and organized.
I gave a small start as I studied the table more closely, for there was no layer of dust upon it. In fact, it looked as though it had been used very, very recently. A sudden ominous feeling grew within me, and I leapt back from the table as though it had come alive and bit me. "No," I whispered to the silent, still air. "No, it can't be…!"
My words hung in the silence for a moment, and eerily that silence seemed almost to answer my unspoken fears. I spun on my heel and fled the room, terror burning my heart. Rainstorm or no, I now knew I could not stay here. Someone had been here recently - today, even - and I was beginning to guess who that person might be. Fear overtook me as I hurtled down the stairs at top speed. My head and heart were both pounding, my mind spinning with confused emotions.
I did not want him to be alive. Dead, it was much easier to forget him. Dead, I could make him the villain I had thought he would be. But if he was alive… if he was alive and I was forced to face him, I would be unable to deny the pain he had caused me. I would be unable to flee the emotions that had tormented and haunted me in the years before the War of the Ring, and then, surely, I would crumble and break. I was struggling already with my desire to be free of a painful and distant marriage; I could not take this atop all of my other difficulties.
I tore down the staircase at top speed, leaping off the last stair and tearing towards the door. I reached it and forced all my weight against it, pushing. I had to get out. I had to leave this oppressive place before my worst fears were confirmed. I pushed with all my strength, waiting for the door to fly open and release me.
It remained tightly closed.
I gave a tiny cry of horror and slammed my fists against it, beating it with all my fury. "Open!" I commanded furiously. "Why will you not open?"
That was when I felt it: the stare that had haunted me for so many years when Gríma was still my Uncle's counsellor.
"Those who enter Orthanc cannot leave it, save when the Lord of Isengard grants them leave to depart," a voice behind me said softly, triumph barely masked beneath the words.
I froze at the sound of that voice. I felt as chilled as ice, and any semblance of hope that I had had of escaping crumbled and left me. I turned slowly to face him, my eyes wide, my heart pounding. I did not want to see his face. I did not want to hear his voice. I did not want to know he was there at all. Yet, I could not resist facing him.
"Gríma," I whispered, and in my heart I felt a despair deeper than any I had felt before.
His face was impassive, but his icy blue eyes spoke for him. "My princess," he whispered. I could sense his desire to step nearer, but he held his ground, hands laced tightly behind his back, as though he was attempting not to reach out for me. "It has been far too long."