The View From The Shadows
In the narrow aisle outside the pillars that flanked the great hall, Grima Wormtongue paced and thought; he always thought before he spoke. It did not matter whom he was talking to or what he was talking about. He rehearsed his proposal for an amendment to the king's current policy on receiving visitors. He ticked off the arguments in his head like a card shark shuffling a deck of cards to make sure that the right ones are up his sleeves and the rest are properly ordered in the deck.
He felt confident that Theoden would agree to his suggestion that in future all visitors would first be screened by the King's counselor. He'd explain that the policy was intended to spare the frail king and conserve his waning strength. He knew just what points he would stress. And, in another small degree, Rohan would pass from Theoden's control to Grima's.
He heard soft, fast footsteps and looked up from the tile square he was contemplating. A quick scan of the room revealed that Theoden had company. The princess knelt before the aged king in the soft light that filtered through the high windows of the hall.
Grima sought cover in the long shadows behind the pillars. For the time being, he found it more productive to watch the interaction between Eowyn and her uncle. He would like to see if his hold over the old man could be breached by an earnest and sustained petition. And he would enjoy the scenery while he observed the test.
She began in a low yet audible voice to implore her uncle on her brother's behalf. So she had discovered Eomer's plight. When he'd seen her earlier, she was eating lunch in the dining room, and though she had glared at him, the hatred in her glance was casual enough to suggest that she had not yet seen his order for her brother's decapitation.
Eowyn's voice faltered before the king's indifference. Grima craned forward to gain a better view. He didn't worry about her discovering him. Within the dusky halls of the Meduseld the black robes of his office concealed him as well as an elven-made cloak. Eowyn knew that he watched her, but only some of the time.
Often he could view entire conversations that she thought were private. So he had learned all her secrets, at least the ones that she carelessly verbalized within the walls of the hall. He knew her routine as he knew the movements of the sun and the steady march of the stars across the sky as one year drew to a close and another began. He could predict her actions based on the subtleties of her moods and the features of her surroundings.
She wasn't simple, but her face was beautifully transparent and she could conceal her emotions no better than a small child. He could read her like a book that he'd studied so long that the words had become part of him, one he knew so well that he found that he forgot to turn the pages as he recited the text.
For a time he'd pretended that he watched her to learn valuable information that he or his lord might find useful, but everything that he saw only increased his painful, hopeless longing without adding any clarity. Whenever his gaze lingered a moment too long and he caught her glance the hatred in her eyes cut him like a sudden gash across his chest.
Sometimes he could catch her dreaming as she dozed in a large chair by the fire in the hall by the kitchen and it was the kind of reprieve that felt akin to a stay of execution. He would sit next to her and depart while she still breathed heavy with sleep. At such times her hostile eyes were closed, her face was relaxed, and Grima was free to imagine her as he would. He daydreamed while she dreamed:
Everyone perished in the War of the Ring. The forces of Sauron and Gondor decimated by ceaseless battle. The armies of Saruman and the Riders of Rohan were destroyed in undoing each other, like duelists exchanging death wounds and bleeding out on the same narrow patch of earth. The meddling elves left the shores of Middle Earth as their songs had so long tantalized, and the tiresome dwarves retreated to their underground lairs and were buried in a crushing deluge of rock. Some died by fire, some by swords, and some by dark means mysterious. In all this chaos and miserable death, only he and Eowyn remained. Shattered refugees of a horrible war and the last of their kind, they came together. They healed each others' wounds. They sought tender comfort in one anothers' arms and she grew to love him as he loved her.
It was a silly dream for a man who usually expended his energies crafting clever solutions to the problems that plagued him, but that was the appeal. The more savagely she scorned him, the more utterly he disintegrated into fantasies that bore no correlation to reality. For weeks he seemed to live in the margins between sleep and dream, because there she could exist for him as he wanted her and needed her to be. It became an effort to shake himself awake to deal with the daily crises of Rohan and to carry out the wizard's dark agenda. The latter worried him more than the former, because if he failed his part of his bargain to Saruman, then painful death would be the only reward that he could anticipate.
With the familiar reluctant kick, his mind returned to the present, to his lady before him. Eowyn had ceased trying to speak to her uncle and released his catatonic face from her hold. Visibly shaking, she stood. Theoden remained statue-still. Eowyn turned and left as she had entered, without glancing into the shadows where Grima lurked.
The room grew cold without her. It did not matter. She would soon seek him out. He returned to his chambers so that he would be easy to find when she came looking. His business with the king could wait.
Grima unlocked the door to the small room that served both as his study and his bedroom within the Meduseld. The bright afternoon sun steamed in through the window and made a silhouette of the raven perched upon the outside ledge. When it saw him, the bird scratched at the glass with one of its talons and opened its beak to caw. Its beady eyes winked at him in the bright light.
Grima was no great observer of nature, but this did not seem normal bird behavior. He crossed the floor to raise the window and allow the raven entrance. The bird flew in and landed on the branch-like stem of a candle fixture on his desk.
Before Grima had time to shoo the bird from its perch precariously near his important papers, it opened its beak and a deep booming voice issued forth.
"Your latest dispatch was lacking," the raven said. Its beak did not move with the words, rather the speech seemed to flow out of the bird like wine out of a ruptured wine sack. It was surely bewitched, one of the white wizard's black messengers.
Grima folded his hands behind his back. "I am sorry, my lord. I have been quite overwhelmed with the pace that events have been unfolding of late. I wrote in haste, in a few stolen moments."
"During such times it is particularly important that you keep me informed of all developments. I do not always have time to track you down in innovative disguises." The raven looked reproachful, if that were possible.
"Yes, my lord."
"Tell me what has occurred. I will then instruct you how to proceed. You are placed there to serve my will in Theoden's court, not to make decisions on my behalf."
"Yes my lord."
"Now, you wrote that the blasted Theodred had died per our plan. Tell me more of his passing."
"He died sometime in the night. That was four days ago. He passed slowly of his grievous wounds. I believe that they were infected because they started to stink by the third day, and they were burning to the touch. The court healers lack all competence, and I don't think they ever realized what afflicted him, or gave him proper treatment."
"Then you did not find it necessary to administer the potions I sent you?"
"No. I merely gave him something to quiet his pain and ease his passing." There was no reply, so Grima continued to explain. "He had been screaming night and day before I visited him. A servant may have seen me the last time I gave him medicine, so I may get blamed with poisoning him anyways."
"How merciful and foolish of you."
"Just because a man's death is required doesn't mean that it has to be painful."
"Do not make the mistake of letting compassion interfere with your duties, counselor. You remember what is at stake?"
Grima nodded. "I assure you, my lord, it was not compassion that moved me. Just a distaste for the loud screamings of a dying man, and impatience with the incompetence of the imbecile healers."
"I suggest that next time you remember that poisons quiet screaming just as effectively as balms. For Grima, if you fail me, if you betray me, I shall not be compassionate. I will kill her before you. Your pretty lady will have an ugly death. Afterward you will pray to die and I will deny you even though you beg me."
Grima cast his eyes down. During the wizard's criticism, he had not reacted, and when he looked up again his face was a cypher. When he spoke his voice was quite and measured. "My lord that will not be necessary."
"This conversation quickly grows tedious. Perhaps I should have been thankful you did not write in greater detail. What other news of Rohan? How is the king?"
"More and more submerged everyday. I could command him to throw himself from the topmost tower of Helm's Deep, and he would."
"And my lord-"
"I have good news for you unbidden. I have arrested his nephew and heir, Eomer, on charges of treason."
"Only this morning."
The raven was silent for so long that Grima thought that Saruman might have departed.
"That is good. Very good. Perhaps you may wed the fair Eowyn yet."
"Have you any special wishes regarding Eomer, son of Eomund?"
"Kill the fool. Send me his head."
"That I shall. However, I must wait for the customary three days to pass if I am to maintain any claim of the government's legitimacy. Rest assured, my lord, I shall enjoy watching that proud neck sever."
"Very well. Have you any further news?"
"Then pay attention to what I shall tell you. There are strangers in the land of Rohan: a man, an elf, and a dwarf. I may require your aide in dealing with this mongrel company. They should not, under any circumstances, be allowed to see Theoden.
"Yes my lord."
"There may also be an old man who has joined their number. Keep a special watch for him. Though appearing least, he is the most dangerous of the rabble."
"None of their description shall see the king."
"I have further instructions for you, but we must meet in person. It is a strain to possess this small, brainless creature at this distance any longer. Ride due south to the copse of wood a league to the south. I will be waiting there at midday in two days time."
Without even waiting for a response, or to hear if Grima knew the location of which he had spoken, the wizard was gone, vanished from behind the eyes of the raven. The bird reeled on its perch and cried as though it had been mortally injured.
The bird regained control of its body and flew to the ceiling of Grima's room, which was not high, but just beyond Grima's reach. It circled and flew every way but towards the open window that offered escape. In the course of the chase it sprayed feces over Grima's sleeping pallet and perched on the top of his bookshelf, slashing at his arms every time he tried to steer it away. Grima's hands were shaking and his robes were splattered by the time he had steered the reluctant bird out of the window and slammed the pane shut.
It was a rudeness of Saruman not to possess the bird long enough to guide it out of Grima's room. It would have taken him a second of his time to save Grima minutes of struggle. Likely the thought had not even occurred to him. There were certain downsides to dealing with wizards.
Saruman was the only wizard that Grima had had personal dealings with, and though he had profited much since entering the service of Isengard, conversation with him always left Grima feeling deeply unclean, like it had lowered him. The wizard's tendency to continually threaten him when angry and promise him boons when pleased grew irritating. It was as though the wizard did not trust Grima to remain true to his purpose without continual kicks and caresses, as though he thought Grima were a horse or some mindless beast of toil. He did not relish the necessity of journeying to meet Saruman face to face, but the idea of not going didn't even enter his mind, because it was too horrible to contemplate.
If Saruman, who called himself wise, had truly understood his servant, then he would have known that Grima couldn't have forgotten the goal, like he couldn't have forgotten to breathe or to blink. What else could happen with her constantly there, lingering near but ever out of his reach? Perhaps when you live the span of many men's lives, you forget the workings of the human heart, Grima thought. He moved to change the soiled linens of his pallet when there was a knock on his door.
A/N: Free virtual oatmeal chocolate chip cookies to all reviewers.