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Rohan Ghost Story, A: 16. Last Refuge
"Where are they headed? Speak, and I may end your suffering quickly." Wormtongue's gaze pierced the mortally wounded man his Uruk-hai had half-carried, half-dragged to him. He was the only one still alive of the little group that had been trapped on their side of the gap, although he would not last for long. His carefully crafted cuirass indicated that he was a soldier of high rank, and as the counsellor's scrutinising look continued to linger on the pale, pained face, he recalled having seen the man before, during his service under the late King Théoden, although he could not remember his name. Three bolts had punched into his torso through his armour and thin rivulets of blood were running from the corners of his mouth. He would be dead very soon, but not so soon that Gríma could not threaten him with making his passing even more painful. He drew a thin, jagged blade from his belt and pressed it against the wounded man's throat to add impact to his words – and found himself taken aback as the prisoner spit into his face – saliva and blood. Then he laughed at his captor, even though his breathing sounded raspy and laboured.
"You are helpless now, snake, aren't you? You cannot follow them, and you will not find them again when you turn back now! And soon, my brethren will hunt down you, and the filth that accompanies you, like rabid dogs! You cannot threaten me! I am not afraid of death!" Findárras gritted his teeth at his enemy in a bloody grin. His men were dead, and he would rejoin them very soon, and his agony would end. They had done what they could for Elfhelm and the king. They had managed to kill the warg and its rider, and even a few of Wormtongue's Uruks before a hail of arrows and crossbow-bolts had punched through their defences with deadly accuracy, killing horses and men alike. There was nothing more for him to do.
A malevolent sparkle glistened in the watery eyes in front of him, but all Findárras saw was his own image mirrored in the dark pupils as Wormtongue moved so close that he could actually smell the scent of his sick-looking skin.
"If you choose these words to be your last, so be it, nameless rider of Rohan! Laugh at me, if you like, but we will find them, and when we do, their fate shall be even worse than yours! Enjoy your last laugh!" Slowly but forcefully, he drew the blade over the soldier's neck, and his cold stare stayed on the dying man until the Rohir's eyes broke and all ridicule died with him…
It was a pale morning, and the sky was the colour of old, dried bones as the line of utterly exhausted horses and men stumbled into the rift of Helm's Deep. Somewhere shortly before dawn, the snow-storm had blown itself out, but there was still a thick layer of clouds above their heads that prevented the sun from warming the refugees' freezing shapes as it finally began its ascent in the sky.
The great fortress of the ancient sea-kings loomed as mightily and forbidding as ever in front of them, nestled into a niche in front of the sheer granite walls, but even from afar the great breach Saruman's magical fire had blown into the Deeping Wall gaped at the tired, beat men and indicated that they were vainly looking for safety in this place. Further over to the right side, at the end of the long stone ramp, the great wooden and metal gate was likewise still broken. The Hornburg would not be their unbreakable refuge, so Elfhelm had decided that they would make their last stand in the caves. He had been loath to dispatch two of his freezing, hungry, exhausted soldiers to man the watchtower closest to the fortress, but they had to know when the enemy came. It did little for his conscience that he would send them relief around midday. They were all yearning for a sheltered place and a little comfort and warmth, but someone had to keep watch. He was glad that the men had accepted their bad luck without so much as a cross glance, or even a complaint.
The Rohirrims' hearts froze as they rode in oppressive silence over what had been the bloodiest battlefield in the history of Rohan only half a year ago. The bodies of their fallen had long been properly buried, and the carcasses of their enemies been burnt, and still the men felt as if the malevolent eyes of thousands upon thousands ghosts were watching their every step, just waiting to assault them once the sunlight was gone again.
"I cannot believe we made it," Thor muttered to himself as his gaze went up to the highest part of the Hornburg. Against better knowledge, he had found himself hoping that through some miracle, Erkenbrand's reinforcements would already be waiting for them at their destination, but the pure, undisturbed white blanket that covered the ground before them had quickly turned his hope to dust, long before his hawk-eyes had been able to determine that there was nothing moving the way they were headed. His heart sank, and as he urged his exhausted black steed into the valley that marked their final approach, he could not help looking back over his shoulder in search for the enemy. But Gríma could not be here so fast. It was not humanly possible. And even Uruks had to have their limits!
"Aye. It feels like a dream. But that is probably because we haven't slept in over two days now," Elfhelm answered him, even though he was aware that his scout had not been explicitly talking to him. But after the last hours which they had spent in utter, devastated silence, he felt the distinct need to hear his voice again to chase away the ghosts of the horrible night that lay behind them, as well as the ghosts of the battlefield they were crossing. Despite the layers of thick clothing, he felt completely frozen and hissed in pain as he attempted to roll his stiff, aching shoulders. The grey shape of the Hornburg did not look as encouraging as he had hoped. In fact, the view rather stirred up the ghosts of agonised cries and shrieks, growling and angry bellows, the sound of metal against metal and the forceful swishing sounds of flying arrows… and, of course, the deafening explosion and the thunder of falling debris all around him. He even felt as if he could sense the earth-shattering concussion again, and smell the burnt stench of whatever the White Wizard had used for his deadly fire.
Involuntarily, Elfhelm's eyes went to the part of the wall where he had stood when it happened, and he shivered. He had come so close to not only being blown straight into the realm of his forefathers, but without leaving a recognisable body, something that could be buried, too. True to the Rohirrim belief, no soul could ascend to the realm of the deceased if their mortal remains had not been tended to in the right way… like the men they had left behind on the mountain path. The knowledge that their spirits would be lost forever stung the marshal like a blade straight into his gut. It had been the worst decision Elfhelm had been forced to make in his life, because Findárras and the others had not even been wounded when they had abandoned them. All these years those men had trusted him to lead them through even the worst battles, and now his decision to come to their king's aid had resulted in the death of half of his éored, with not one man having been properly buried. The very thought sickened the warrior. At least, Éomer had helped him to carry that burden when he had explained Elfhelm's decision to the distraught young healer in their midst. He had been thankful for that, and suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to let his friend know. He turned around in the saddle… and frowned.
The man under the cloak and blankets was sitting slumped in the saddle, his entire weight resting on the construction that had kept him upright over the night. The way his head lolled from side to side with each of Firefoot's steps indicated that his strength had deserted him completely now, but his eyes were open, and his gaze directed at the ruins of the Hornburg before it glided down to meet his friend's questioning gaze. There were deep shadows under his sunken eyes, and his face looked gaunt and drawn with a pale complexion that smashed Elfhelm's vague relief over Éomer's being awake to dust. The king looked indeed like a wraith! Determined not to let his immense concern show, the marshal untied Firefoot's reins and pulled the grey stallion next to his side as they approached the ramp together.
"We are there, brother. We made it. And I am certain that Erkenbrand's men won't let us wait for very long, either. If Gríma really finds us here, he shall be in for a nasty surprise!" Elfhelm was not used to lying, and the optimistic words felt strange in his mouth. He fell silent, knowing fully well that Éomer would pick up the doubt behind them, too. If he wasn't able to convince himself, how should he convince a man as shrewd as the king?
"You are a bad liar, Elfhelm," Éomer muttered rightly, looking ready to fall from the saddle as soon as they cut him loose. "But thank you for the effort." He noticed that the scout's attention had turned to him as well and met his eyes for a moment, affirming that he was still with his kinsmen. It took him another moment to collect his breath for a question. The question. "What now?"
"The Hornburg, as you see, lies still in ruins. We could probably repair the gate until Gríma arrives--" Elfhelm's tone left no doubt that he absolutely counted on the appearance of their enemy – "-but it wouldn't hold for long. I believe that we will have a better chance of defending ourselves in the caves. The tunnels beneath the mountains are very narrow, and the Uruks will have to move through them in single-file. They will not be able to make as much use of their greater number... and we will use the hours until they arrive to prepare a few... surprises for them. If we do this right, we may be able to greatly reduce their numbers before we have to meet them in head-on battle..." He paused, then stared at the younger man as a sudden thought hit him. "How well does Gríma know the caves?"
Éomer's gaze swept the white ground until it came to rest at the shadow that marked the outside entrance to the Glittering Caves. There was also another one that granted them access from the Hornburg. So Gríma would be able to come at them from two ways... His brow furrowed as he contemplated Elfhelm's question, not liking the most likely answer.
"I cannot say. But we would be well advised to assume that he knows each rock within them. As much as I hate the slithering filth, I have to admit that each part of his attack has been well planned and executed. He may be just as cunning as his late master..." He grimaced as his steed stumbled over rock. Firefoot was about to collapse; he felt it with every fibre of his body. "What about our horses? We cannot put them in the stable, where they would become easy prey for his Uruks. But to leave them outside in these conditions..." He did not have to finish. Obviously, Elfhelm had been thinking about this problem, too.
"Aye, I know. They need the rest as much as we do. We will let them rest in the stables for at least a few hours. Thor's shortcut should at least grant us that time, even it came at a very high price." Elfhelm's thoughts went out to the doomed men of his éored again. "We will let them rest and feed for as long as we can, and when the fire is lit, we will drive them out into the valley. They should be smart enough to evade the enemy." He directed his great bay onto the ramp towards the smashed gate.
Éomer's gaze went back to the men following them. It was a pitifully small procession. His mouth tightened to a grim line. He wanted to believe that they still had a chance, he really did, but his heart sank with each step that brought them closer to the Hornburg. Once again, their fate would be decided here. The first time, their victory had come virtually at the last second, and while the men of Rohan had praised his reckless ride then, Éomer knew that they would nonetheless not have made it if Mithrandir's power had not turned the tide towards their side. This time, the scale of the battle would be much smaller, but the odds were at least as unfavourable for them as before. Only this time, there would be no Istari wizard coming to their rescue. This time, they would have to make it all by themselves...
Finally, the storm had blown itself out. It had seemed to ravage their half-frozen bodies forever when they had been forced to turn around on the mountain, unable to bridge the long gap where the path had broken away under the force of nature. Wormtongue had been standing at the edge of the cliff for a long time, closer than reasonable under the extreme conditions, and peered down into the darkness below. Was Éomer dead? Had the mountain swept them all from its shoulder in its fury? The scrawny Rohirric soldier he had interrogated had not given him the least clue, and for that, the counsellor had wanted to make the man suffer even longer, but the truth was that they had no time. If the refugees had indeed survived the avalanche and proceeded on the path, it would give them a lead that would make it impossible for Wormtongue to ever get his hands on them again before they reached their destination. Ah yes, their destination…
He looked up from the improvised shelter under a natural cornice, where they had finally chosen to rest for an hour shortly before dawn. Just after they had reached the plains they had found that the wind had been even harder on them, and proceeding had become a matter of will against elements to the point where Wormtongue had – for the first time – encountered serious problems with his company. Even though he had been fatigued and half-frozen himself and his horse exhausted almost to the point of collapsing beneath him, his hatred had driven him on and he had not wanted to pause… His surprise had therefore not been small when he had to discover that finally the Uruks' patience had been at an end with him, and his host had been close to mutiny. The smart inner voice of self-preservation in the back of his mind had advised him urgently to follow their demand, even though he ached to go on. For the first time ever, a slight quiver of fear had twitched in his stomach when his orc-captain had approached him to growl his demand into his face, and suddenly the dark counsellor had found himself the centre of attention of hundreds of pairs of brightly gleaming, not exactly benevolent looking eyes. What had he done wrong with this breed? Why were they not as easily controllable as his late master's? He would have to work his breeding pits once they had returned to the Misty Mountains.
Intimidated, but still able to sufficiently mask the feeling to his army as his own need for a break and having to consult his maps, he had then wrapped the cloak tighter around his thin frame and hunched down in a relatively sheltered corner to do just that. With the warg gone and the conditions the way they were, it was down to him to figure out where his prey was headed. He had not known of that particular mountain path they had used before, and he would have passed it if it had not been for the orc-wolf's sharp senses, for it had looked like a trail that would – at best – accommodate goats. Now, where did it lead? The map rustled in the wind and was almost ripped from his stiff fingers by another violent gust, and he cursed and squinted in the twilight of the early morning as he attempted to decipher the writing on the map, which had been drawn by an experienced Dunlending scout, also his own creation.
It was a rare enough incident that the primitive Dunlendings knew what to do with a quill and paper, and he had sought a long time after that man. He had been a mud-blood, Gríma remembered: three-parts Dunlending, one part Rohir. The usual story: Grown up on the wrong side of the river Isen where the population was mingled and regarded with great distrust by the 'strawheads', as Éorl's descendants were called by the Dunlendings. Never allowed to join their exclusive company. Not allowed to let their cattle graze on the rich meadows, even though the vast land was empty for leagues. The one time he had trespassed, a patrol of the Rohirrim had caught and punished him severely, kept his cattle and chased him back over the river, now another hate-filled enemy more. Gríma had made the man's acquaintance while he had been constantly travelling between Isengard and Edoras in Théoden's, or rather, Saruman's service, and, having instantly recognised his potential, had tutored him to read and write and in the art of map-drawing. Combined with the man's vast knowledge of the Westmark, he had cultivated himself a very valuable scout... and now all the years of his scheming had come in handy as he stared onto the map.
The light was weak and the lines on the paper thin, but the path was there! Excitement replaced frustration and cold as Gríma Wormtongue traced the winding line with his finger to the point where they had been forced to turn around... and then all the way up to... Helm's Deep.
Helm's Deep... yes indeed, this had to be the place the king's men were headed! There was nothing else in the vicinity for leagues, and they would have to seek shelter very soon, especially if they still had the wounded king with them. A fire burnt in the counsellor's eyes when he looked up again, suddenly not feeling the cold anymore. The nearest orc, feeling his master's sudden excitement, stared at him questioningly as he chewed on a piece of half-frozen meat.
"Âsghnak? I have figured out where they are. Spread the word that we will continue our march as soon as I give the signal. You do not want to linger here when your prey is sitting trapped like a mouse, stuck in a place they cannot defend with no way out... do you?"
Elfhelm felt beat; like death on legs. That they still carried him after the hardships of the past two days and especially what he had done over the course of the last three hours was no small miracle, but now he had reached his limit, just like every one of his men. He had outlasted the first shift for an hour, but now he had reached the point where it was inevitable that he would have to fetch at least a few hours of undisturbed sleep himself, approaching enemy or not. He would only have another look at his friend, he decided, and then he, too, would lie down for a few hours rest. Just like the men who had worked that shift with him, desperately preparing for battle and turning the Hornburg as well as the caves behind the fortress into a treacherous terrain full of deadly traps. The preparations were ongoing, but now Thor, whom he had proclaimed his new second-in-command, was supervising them and the men Elfhelm had sent straight to sleep upon their arrival at the Hornburg. Together with his scout, he had first helped to bring Éomer into the king' chambers where Árdwyne had once again tended to his wounds, and then summoned what was left of his once proud éored to discuss their course of action.
All men had agreed on choosing the caves as the location of their last stand, and together, they had developed a strategy to gradually reduce the enemy's numbers through a variety of simple, but effective traps. There were more than enough weapons available in the armoury, a wide variety of Rohirrim and orc-instruments of war that had been found on the battlefield after the clash with Saruman's army: range-weapons like bows and mighty Uruk-crossbows, cruel-looking blades of all forms, swords, axes, lances...Elfhelm could not have wished for more. There was plenty of firewood, too, which they could easily transform into deadly spikes, and barrels filled with oil they could ignite to rain down onto the unsuspecting enemy... They had ropes, they had the complete accessory of a smithy at their hands, even if they didn't have a blacksmith to work them... all they had to do was get to work. For the first time, Elfhelm felt something like a tiny ray of hope as he watched the half of his men he had not sent to sleep begin their preparations.
Éomer's still form was lying on the bed as he entered, and the young healer was in the middle of redressing his shoulder. The room was a little warmer than the rest of the Hornburg, thanks to the fire they had lit in the fireplace opposite the bed. A pleasant smell came from a bowl hanging over the flames. Elfhelm had not eaten for a long time, but the sight of the blood-stained old bandages on the table close by dampened his sudden fit of hunger, and he cringed inwardly as he came to a halt at the foot-end of the bed, his intense gaze on the king's face.
The younger man did not react to the sound of his voice. Even though it was anything but warm in the room, there was sweat running down his face, which, in the flickering light of the fire, looked deadly pale, except for the dark shadows under his eyes and the slightly bluish tinted lips. At his sight, Elfhelm felt fear coming back with a sudden jolt, and his gaze went down to the king's chest. It was still rising and falling with each of Éomer's breaths, but all in all, his condition seemed to have vastly deteriorated since they had ridden up the ramp together into the keep. Although exhausted to the point of collapsing, Éomer had still been lucid then, even if his strength had completely failed him when they had brought him inside. This time, they had had needed to carry him. Fearing to ask the one question he needed to know the answer to, Elfhelm finally cleared his throat and spoke.
"How is he, Árdwyne? He looks horrible!"
The young healer's head turned around, and it was not surprising to the marshal that she looked just as beat as him. A very hard night lay behind them, and there was also her personal loss. Elfhelm was determined to send her to sleep, too, as soon as she had finished tending to his friend, even if it were just for a few hours. He and his men were warriors; they were used to extreme hardships, and even they had reached their limit. That woman had to have passed hers a good while ago. She sighed at his question, and toned her voice down as to not to wake her patient as she applied the finishing touches to his bandage.
"I cannot say, my lord. He was still awake when I bathed the wound again, but he passed out from the pain, and the movement made it bleed again, too. He is also still feverish." She paused as she saw the marshal's gloomy expression and could tell that he was expecting the worst. It made her want to say at least something a bit more positive. "But I may have good tidings as well: I managed to get a little broth into him an hour back, and as far as I can determine, the infection has not spread further. While it is true that he is very weak right now, I deem it not entirely impossible that he might pull through – if the enemy allows us to live, of course." She swallowed and averted her gaze again to fasten the last end of the bandage before she settled two woollen blanket's over her patient's unmoving shape and tugged them in under Éomer's back. "Do you think they will, Marshal Elfhelm? Or do you think they will find us here and…?" She left the sentence unfinished.
"I cannot say." Elfhelm's gaze followed her as she took a wet cloth from a water-filled bowl close by and wiped the king's face. A fresh odour drifted across the room. "All I can say is that if they do, they will find us prepared. We will make them fear this battleground once again. No enemy has ever defeated us here, not even last time, when their number had been many times as much as ours. Our chances are much better this time. They are still made only of flesh and blood. They are not invincible... and Erkenbrand's men must arrive soon, too. With a little luck, they will be here before the enemy does, and then the outcome of the battle will not even be a question anymore." It sounded good, but he felt no inner conviction in himself to lend strength to his words. Maybe it would do for the woman nonetheless.
Having finished with her task, Árdwyne leaned back in her chair and sighed. Her drawn features were filled with the memory of a distant dread as she stared through the marshal back into the blackest night of her young life.
"Last time… it was awful. I was with the other women in the caves, and we heard the footsteps of the approaching army through the rock. We even felt the vibrations. The whole cave was filled with them. It sounded as if there had been enough of them to fill all of Rohan's plains." She looked up. "When we heard them roar - I had no hope left. You know what we were talking about as the night went on and the sound of the battle did not abate?" A heavy breath. "We were contemplating killing ourselves… and our children, to save them and us from a worse fate. We swore that the orcs would not get us alive. We were so close to actually doing it… Some women had daggers with them, and those without were grouping around them, so that each would have a means of escape if the enemy ever broke through." She ran a nervous hand through her tangled hair, and her gaze was urgent when she looked up again. "Please, Marshal Elfhelm, I am not armed. Can you give me at least a dagger to take care of that if the battle turns ill this time? I cannot envision a worse fate than being captured by orcs… alive. I have heard horrible stories during the war… and I've treated the women who told them." She shuddered and gazed at the unconscious king again. "I would take care of him, too, in this case, if you want me too… before the enemy recaptured him. I can fight. You know there are no women in the Westfold who never had a sword in their hands. The Lord Erkenbrand sees to it that both boys and girls learn the basics at an early age at his domain. Once a year, his men go through the villages and take all children with them for a month to teach them." The blue eyes traced back to Elfhelm, and their gaze became hard. "Do you want me to take care of the king if the enemy finds him, my lord?"
Elfhelm cringed. He was tired. The least thing he wanted right now was to make a decision about life or death, and not even his own. He could not think properly anymore.
"Let us not talk of death now, Árdwyne. There is still hope. We will make it." Another glance at Éomer. There was a bed close by that Elfhelm was determined to send the young woman to. He himself would be satisfied with the chair. He had always been able to sleep where he lay or sat, even in a saddle. As a Rohirric warrior who was constantly roaming the Mark, that ability had been pure necessity. It was seldom that he had a bed to sleep in. Whenever he had the opportunity, it even took him a night or two to get accustomed to it again, so used was he to sleeping on the ground with nothing but a blanket beneath him. Stepping up to the young healer, the marshal gave her a slight, dismissive nod. "See that you get some rest, too, Árdwyne. We all shall have needs for it ere this day is over. I will sit here with the king in the meantime. I sleep very lightly; I will hear if anything is wrong with him. Go, take that bed over there."
Her face lit up in thankfulness... and doubt.
"But… my lord, won't you-"
"That chair looks very comfortable." A very weak smile, which she returned. "In fact, it looks much better than this bed." He motioned her to stand up and, with a last look at the sleeping king, leant back and closed his eyes. He was asleep even before he heard the young healer lie down…
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