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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 19. Cast the Net Round
Three thousand men. Three thousand men and such equipage as they had with them--so Háma numbered Edoras's defenders, and the ice of his eyes had not melted as he had smiled grimly. Aragorn and Éomer had absorbed the bad news in silence, and Théoden had nodded thoughtfully. The best count that any could manage on their enemies was an even ten thousand, and neither words nor cries would better the situation. "Some stragglers may arrive ere sunset and so come in the nick of time before our enemies arrive," Háma had added, but no one looked to that possibility with hope. Even a few hundred stragglers would make little difference when the numbers were so unequal.
For Edoras, though it lies atop a steep way, is not the place I would have chosen to make a stand, Éomer thought as he made his way down towards the outer ramparts. Quite apart from the bad odds, the sprawling nature of the Rohirrim settlements in this area, all of which were counted as a part of Edoras steading, meant that the sheer numbers of displaced civilians would make quarters and rations tight indeed. At least, Éomer mused as he passed by a cluster of farmers bearing quivers and bows, we may rely upon the fyrd men, so we shall worry less about some of the refugees. That would give Edoras's beleaguered forces a boost in archers and pike men, but most such citizen soldiers would be held back as a last defense before the gates of Meduseld, freeing horsemen and guardsmen to hold the forward lines as long as possible. Háma was busily organizing the fyrd ranks at the moment, while Théoden had disposed of his men according to the needs of Aragorn and Éomer, who had spent the past few hours making of Edoras a labyrinth of choke-points and dead-ends for the enemy to discover.
But none of that would matter, and in the end, Edoras was a bad place for a siege not because of its architecture, but because whether its people remained beyond the walls or clustered fearfully in the court of Meduseld, they would die nonetheless. Short of rescue at the hands of Minas Tirith's army entire, Edoras was doomed, and so were her defenders, innocent and otherwise. Éomer could taste the collective despair on his tongue like bitter dregs, and he supposed that that was precisely what it was: the dregs, the last draw on a day so filled with reversals he could scarcely comprehend what vast, cosmic conspiracy would put them all together in a few short hours of daylight. When he had awakened that morning in his cell, cursing his continued existence, he had looked for nothing beyond Éowyn's next visit, however painful. Háma's unexpected arrival and terse, excited message had roused astonishment and a desperate hope that had seemed to be borne out beyond all expectation with Wormtongue's incarceration and Théoden's cure.
But it had not lasted, and with the messenger's words, he had felt his elation plunge once more, only to strike bottom and rebound to a sort of mad delight with the world's perversity. No wonder Legolas stared at me when I grinned at him earlier! the Third Marshal thought grimly, lips twitching nonetheless. There were those who held that his father had had a bit of the berserker in him, but most fighting men in the Mark could claim the same. It was tradition, fostered and bred into a boy early on, and Éomer tended to dismiss such tendencies in himself. After all, he had never been one to laugh while he slew; he had never lost control, nor gone into battle so hot-tempered that he failed in his duty as a captain—to protect his people and not to waste them in a futile and unnecessary engagement.
Now, though, he wondered: perhaps rumor had been correct, perhaps he had inherited a bit more of that ancient, fey humor than he had believed previously. At least his emotions had settled to a less fevered pitch, and the responsibilities of a Third Marshal had helped in that respect. As Háma had said earlier, when Éomer had paused to talk with him on his way into Meduseld, certain death focused the mind wonderfully. It made a man aware of what was important, and taught him to appreciate what he could in the time left him.
He could appreciate, therefore, that Edoras's straits, bad as they were, could easily have been worse. Éowyn's stealthy preparations may make the difference: we may at least give a good account of ourselves and hold out for a day or two, perhaps. That must count for something, surely! But at the same time, such thoughts only reminded him that he still felt nauseated on her behalf, and a part of him felt certain that even were he to live to see a thousand years, that nausea would never leave him. Wormtongue's poison had infected him, and the cure was beyond him for nothing could undo the past. Nothing could have saved me from myself. Legolas was right to fear for me!
And if even the last few hours were beyond reclaim, the last fifteen minutes were equally lost to him: they were all plunging forward towards the abyss. With a toss of his head, Éomer made himself put such grim reflections aside and continue on his way towards the high outer walls. This is not the time for distraction, and I have done what I could for her, after all. Little though it is, and despite the cost. As he reached the base of the stairs, he paused to let pass a small contingent of cross-bow archers who would act as snipers for those hidden behind the barricades and in empty storehouses and shops. As the group's commander hurried by, though, Éomer reached out and caught his arm.
"My lord?" the man asked, recognizing Éomer.
"Is the lord Aragorn above?"
"Ara… ah, yes. Lord Ælric stands just there, to the left of the gates. He waits for you, I think, for ere he sent us off, he asked about you, my lord marshal."
"Good man," Éomer replied, clapping the other on the shoulder by way of dismissal as he turned his eyes to the heights. In the fast-waning light, it was impossible to distinguish anyone by face, even without a helmet. But there was Éomer's standard, surmounted by the royal crest of Edoras, and that meant that the tall silhouette standing by it was most likely Aragorn. Tucking his helm under one arm, the Third Marshal took the steps two at a time to reach the ramparts, and then turned to his left. Down the line of waiting men he strode, noting the stillness in their faces, and he gritted his teeth against the collective agony as men watched that dark army come onward.
From this angle and range, it was easy enough to spot Aragorn: Isildur's Heir stood taller than any save himself, and even had he not, his dark hair set him apart amid the profusion of gold braids and silvered armor. And from the contemplative look on his face, one might not have realized that they stood now on the edge of disaster. This is, Éomer realized with a sudden cold shock, the end of the Mark as we know it. Whatever comes next—final defeat or a new day for those left behind—nothing will ever be the same again. Since Helm's day, no enemy has dared to attack Edoras, and even then, no one who had not Eorl's blood in him ever sat upon the throne. Curse Saruman! No such glum thoughts showed in his face, however, for though young, Éomer knew well that men must not see a captain's weakness.
Aragorn glanced sideways, hearing his approach, and gave Éomer a nod. "Is all well at the inner keep?" Grey eyes fixed on his own, and the Third Marshal let out a slow breath. Clearly, someone—probably the archer captain—had told him of Éomer's likely whereabouts, and Éomer sensed the concern that weighted that silver gaze.
"As well as can be. Háma has the fyrd men and the Meduseld guard firmly in hand, and the King's personal guard will see that Théoden is well-protected when we reach his position."
"I see." And the way that the other said it told Éomer that Aragorn had not missed the omission in his report. But Isildur's Heir knew the meaning of discretion and politely did not inquire after Éowyn. And as Éomer had rather counted on that courtesy, he let out an unobtrusive sigh of relief, for he had no desire to speak of any matter that might bring them round to mention of Gríma Wormtongue and questions that he did not want to answer. "The last archers are in place, and we wait now for naught but targets to use them against," Aragorn continued by way of moving past that awkward pause.
"We shall not lack for those, at least," Éomer replied, and smiled somewhat as he added, "I met a few of the archers coming up. They told me that 'Lord Ælric' was above."
At that, the Ranger gave a soft bark of laughter and shook his dark head, running a hand through his hair. "Ælric indeed! I had not thought I would be remembered so well that more men would know me as Ælric than Aragorn. I wonder whether my birth name even survived the journey from Meduseld to the outer keep!"
"It may have, but the king did name you Ælric, after all," Éomer reminded him with a soft chuckle. "In any case, you have enough names to bewilder the loremasters of Minas Tirith. Four I count, and how many more, I wonder?" He paused, letting his gaze sweep over the waiting, motionless men. A warrior learned habitually to gauge the subtle differences in mood that washed over an army as it waited for the clash. The veteran of many a campaign, it occurred to Éomer that there was something… off. Something puzzling… wrong… yes, there is something wrong with this forlorn brooding. Quizzically, he glanced over at Aragorn, who stood leaning on his hands against a convenient merlon, watching the movement along the front lines of that dark host, intent upon his enemies. If there were aught amiss, either the Ranger was not aware of it or else he had already come to terms with it. Éomer knew not which it was, only that never had the air seemed so still to him. It was as if every man stood stiff and poised, held suspended by some common injunction to silence. "Béma but it is quiet," he murmured uneasily.
Aragorn stirred at that, turning a considering eye upon the younger man. "Aye, it is," said he softly.
"Know you wherefore?" Éomer asked, drawing nearer to keep their words between themselves.
"I have my suspicions," the Ranger answered after a minute pause, but then fell silent. Clearly, he had no desire to discuss that matter any further, and tempted though he was, something in the other's manner decided Éomer against pressing him to elaborate. After a few moments, Isildur's Heir gave a soft sigh and glanced up once at the unfeeling expanse of darkening sky. Something flickered in those sea-grey eyes ere dark lashes veiled them, and then Aragorn pushed away from the merlon, giving the Third Marshal a measuring look in response to the younger man's staring.
Éomer felt an odd chill sweep through him as the pressure of those eyes weighed heavy upon him. Aragorn seemed to seek something in him, his gaze probing deeply as if to ask: And are you ready? Are you truly ready? Blinking to break that eerie contact, Éomer cast a quick glance up at the fading blue of the sky, wondering if there were somewhat there to prompt that look. Am I ready? Ready for what? Death? He had been ready for that since he was sixteen, and although he had never before faced a battle knowing with certainty that he would not survive it, the inevitability did not trouble him overmuch. Not that I do not fear, but I have lived with this fear for too long to fall prey to it in the end. And if he had, then Aragorn ought to be more or less immune to the protests of corporeal sensibilities, which was why he dared his companion's eyes once more in the hope of discerning an explanation there in spite of the Ranger's silence.
For his part, Aragorn read the other's confused questioning, yet he said naught, for he knew well the traditions of Rohan, and recognized whence Éomer's present composure stemmed. From a close familiarity with waiting on an honorable death, for the familiar can be a comfort, even when it is grim. Which was not to say that Éomer was alone in that dreadful alliance with death: Aragorn felt it, too—how could he not? Nevertheless, there was a fundamental difference between them that held the Ranger's tongue against revelation. Éomer wants to die, though he does not know it, perhaps. I feel it in him, though, as I have felt it in others. Poor lad! He is likely worn out from the day's events—from the years that led to that cage and his sister's dishonor, though one must look carefully indeed to see his exhaustion.
And so he would not add to that weariness by telling of the Fellowship's quest, nor by touching on the import of that silence that Éomer had remarked. Why trouble him at this late date, when composure comes at so high a cost? And Éomer is a warrior, besides: his is not to ask, only to do as asked… even as I do. Beyond that, Éomer was young, aching still from that confinement, eager for what revenge he might take even if it would not last nor save either himself or Éowyn. Young enough to be content to die and expurgate his sense of outrage with a last gasp, he thought and hid a sad smile. One could do worse than die attempting to defend one's home and lord; one could die knowing that the Ring remains still, as Boromir did. As I shall, and as Gimli and Legolas shall.
Thought of those two, waiting with the guard of the inner keep, brought some comfort to a lonely soul, but even that bond was incomplete. For of the three of them, only Aragorn bore Gandalf's burden, or so he hoped. Only he knew that not only was the Ring unmade, but that whatever passed after this battle, their quest was already in vain—that it had been since that long ago conversation in Rivendell, and that it remained only for the players to exit the stage.
And I cannot say what lies beyond the curtain that separates the stage from the real. If Boromir's death taught me aught, it is to look no further than what friendship lies before me. It would be cruel to tell them, to tell any of them now. Let them fight this last battle and die still hopeful! At the least, I can spare Legolas and Gimli 'til the battle reaches Théoden, he resolved grimly as he strained his eyes to find once more Saruman's men in the falling darkness. The sun hung still in the sky, but in the next quarter hour it would set, and though a prayer or plea hovered on the edge of conscious thought, he stilled it ere ever it burst through to trouble his conscience. If we must find our own grace, then let me not ask it of those who cannot—or will not—give it. Lowering his eyes once more, he laid a hand on Andúril's pommel and let the chill of steel and gold work its way through him even as his thoughts turned westward. Arwen…
"There he is!" That deep rumble of a voice broke through the silence with shattering intensity, and men stirred at the sound, shaking off their immobility with looks of confusion. Éomer cast a glance back over his shoulder, curious but no more. Aragorn, though, turned quickly and his eyes narrowed as he saw the two figures that worked their way along the catwalk ledge. Gimli was instantly recognizable, but Legolas wore a metal-studded leather jazerant—lighter and more flexible than chain mail—and the vambrances that covered the motif on the shooting brace had Rohirric designs. But for his bright eyes and elvish fairness, one might have mistaken him for a younger son of Rohan. And neither of them were supposed to be anywhere near the outer ramparts.
"I thought you were to remain with the guard before Meduseld," the Ranger said rather sharply, arching a brow at the Elf and Dwarf who came to stand before him. Gimli grunted at that and raised dark eyes to his companion, who met his stare and gave a one-shouldered shrug as he calmly unslung his bow.
"Were we? Gimli, I fear I may be more ill than I thought, for I remember no such order," Legolas frowned.
"I find it difficult to pick out one voice in amid all this Rohirric babble," Gimli snorted with exasperation. "You are the one who has been trying to learn this infernal language, not I! You were to listen for orders!" Elf and Dwarf regarded each other with mutual sympathy, and Aragorn saw more than one man turn away or raise a hand to cover his mouth and thereby hide a smile. Beside him, Éomer clearly fought a grin.
"Then let me reiterate: your posts are on the ramparts of the inner keep," the Ranger replied, pinning first one and then the other with a hard stare. Unfortunately, neither Legolas nor Gimli appeared the least intimidated. The old Sindarin expression, that companionship and contempt are but the north to the south side of the same tree, rose irresistibly to mind as his friends gazed back without the slightest apology.
"Was that an order? It seemed a suggestion to me," Gimli asked after a moment, and glanced up at the Elf for confirmation.
"It could only be a suggestion, for we are not bound to obey Lord Ælric who commands in Edoras," Legolas replied simply and smiled slightly when Aragorn said something uncomplimentary in Sindarin. "I have had my fill of the inner keep, and Gimli has had enough of Rohirric. Whither I go, he goes, so as not to be rendered mute and deaf. And I go whither I please, until the king should come again to Minas Tirith. And it pleases me to come here." The staccato clack of wood against stone as Legolas firmly planted the bow of Lórien before him like a staff punctuated that resolve. The prince of Mirkwood stared at the Ranger with all the quiet dignity of his years clouding his face. There could be nothing further from a plea than the emotion in those green eyes, and yet the Ranger felt called to answer, to assent, nonetheless. Still…
"You cannot even come to a full draw, Legolas," Aragorn replied quietly after a beat. "A battle-axe, at least, can in principle be wielded with but one hand."
"Principle is well and good, but practice is better," Gimli replied ere Legolas could respond. "Aragorn, whether or not we are at our best, we serve just as much purpose here as with these… these… what are they?"
"Fyrd men," Legolas supplied, without releasing Aragorn for a moment. "Is that not the term, Éomer?"
"It is," Éomer replied, seeming a bit startled by his sudden inclusion. He flicked a glance at Aragorn, then his eyes went back to Gimli and thence to Legolas, ere he said, "If you gentlemen will excuse me a moment, I believe I am needed elsewhere for a time." With that, the Third Marshal gracefully bowed himself out of what was clearly a private conversation and retreated, beckoning two others to follow him, allowing the three companions some space. Gimli gave a soft grunt, and those who knew him well would have recognized his approval of the man. Turning back to Aragorn, though, the Dwarf continued in a low, persuasive voice:
"What harm, Aragorn, if we stand with you or behind you? You cannot shield us in the end." And much though Aragorn wished he might make some reassuring response, he could not. It was one thing to avoid speaking of the fate of Edoras's defenders in order to keep morale from crumbling; it was another entirely to lie to two friends who knew well the truth. And since he could not—would not—lie to them, he sighed softly and beckoned them to come and stand beside him at the parapet.
"Stay, then," he said and as the two came to join him, he added in a low voice, "Think not that I am not glad of your company, but I wish you would remain behind."
"We know that well," Gimli replied. "And we know also that against this threat, two more pairs of hands are as nothing. Still, they may yet do some good."
"And if you would not put us at undue risk even now, then do not ask us to let you go easily to your own end, where we cannot see it," Legolas added in Sindarin, for the sake of any who might still overhear their quiet conversation. From the Ranger's left, Gimli nodded in stalwart support, which only lent credence to Aragorn's suspicion that this particular ambush had been plotted with exquisite care, for the Dwarf knew very little Sindarin. A few words only, certainly not enough to understand so complicated a sentence! The Ranger gave the pair a long look each, but in the end he surrendered. Some battles, after all, were not to be won by any means, and he had faced such losses before. But rarer and more dear were the battles that he had no desire to win, and he gave Legolas and Gimli a brief but unfeigned smile of gratitude--perhaps his first since he had come to Edoras--and then put all such matters aside. On the plain, the approaching host showed dark against the setting sun, casting long shadows that seemed to stretch out to touch the walls of Edoras. Soon they shall arrive. How many can we take with us, I wonder?
"Ten thousand," Legolas murmured softly, and Aragorn nodded slowly. The messenger who had discovered them in his path had had no time to make a head count, but an elf's long eyes saw clearly over the distance and none had doubted his tally when he had presented it earlier that day. The streets of Edoras were empty but for the soldiers who waited at strategic points. And of course, there were those who stood upon the walls who would have to fight their way back to those waiting in ambush, making themselves bait in order to give Edoras its best chance to go down with honor. Ten thousand… Aragorn closed his eyes briefly, letting the leaden weight of certainty weigh upon him, feeling the glow of determined companionship to either side of him, and he heard once more in his mind Arwen's words: 'There must be moments of joy, else we do not live!' Aye, my love, there have been moments--minutes, even, since that night, and some seconds that came as late as this afternoon. But time runs short now, and death shall find us nonetheless!
Saruman's army, when it arrived during the full dark of the young night wasted no time in beginning the assault. The first volley of arrows went up from the orcs and Dunlendings of Isengard, and even the initial restraint of the Rohirrim did not confound them or stay their mad dash for the walls. Even as the defenders on the ramparts bent their bows and sent down their first flight of arrows, grappling hooks were already over the walls. Stones, oil, arrows, the occasional dagger--the enemy clustered so thick that almost every missile found a mark, and yet that seemed less a deterrent than a goad. Shrieking their rage in a cacophony of orcish and human babble, Rohan's foes scrambled up their makeshift ladders, and though the defenders of Edoras cut them down, casting many to ruin below, the battle did not slow. No sooner had they paused for breath when the hooks were cast up once more. Arrows filled the darkness, hissing through the air and disappearing against the darkened sky, only to declare themselves again as iron heads clinked against stone, or slammed wetly into living flesh.
Even as the defenders sought to deny their foes the walls, the gates below them shuddered as orcs and hillmen moved to the fore with a battering ram. Shields held high over those who moved it, the ranks closed up about them, forming a carapace of leather and steel against the rain of arrows that those of Edoras sent down against them. Stones had some better success, but if ever one of the ram-wielders fell, another stepped quickly into his place and a new shield was raised above him. "If we cannot bring down that ram, then we must be ready on the ground," Éomer said grimly as he cut yet another rope.
"We have the company in the square," Aragorn replied, bracing himself against a parapet as the wall shuddered again. "The archers can retreat along the walls when the time comes. The longer they remain here, the fewer men we shall face!"
And so it was arranged. The majority of the archers were left to their own defenses under Aragorn's command, while Éomer took the rest to join their fellows in the square and await the fall of the gates. Gimli went with him. "I shall be of more assistance there than here! Unless I throw myself over the walls, I can do little but cut string!"
"Watch Éomer, Gimli," Aragorn warned just ere the Dwarf turned to make off after the others. "Keep him alive if you can, for we need him as long as fortune allows."
"I shall. Legolas," Gimli paused a moment, gazing up at the Elf. Legolas glanced down, and for a moment, their eyes met in the darkness. No words were exchanged, but at length, the prince of Mirkwood gave a sharp nod and then pivoted smartly into a draw, loosing yet another arrow into the swarming darkness below. Gimli grunted softly and then broke into a trot, soon disappearing down the steps to join Éomer. Even as he did so, new ropes and hooks came flying over the ramparts, to be cast down once more.
"How goes it?" Háma whirled at that unexpected voice, eyes widening in the torch-lit darkness atop the gates of the inner keep.
"My lady, why come you here?" he demanded. "And so attired?" For Éowyn wore not her customary white, nor even blue: tonight, the flame reflected off the mail that covered her, and an ordinary rider's tabard marked her as one of Rohan's own.
"Waste no words on my appearance, son of Héor," she replied rather coolly. "You know well wherefore I come. So tell me: how goes it?"
Háma licked his lips, hesitating. Technically, Éowyn's betrothal, forced or otherwise, meant she no longer had the right to carry that shield nor wield a sword. Certainly she ought not to be here without at least her brother's permission, which Éomer had refused as late as this afternoon. To Háma's mind, it had been an empty refusal, born of the Third Marshal's protective instincts and an unreasonably guilty conscience for what his sister had endured on his behalf. Nevertheless, he had said naught, refusing to involve himself in a family affair.
Yet now that Éowyn stood beside him, it was clear that she would not tolerate his denial, and Háma found himself thinking that he had seen more of Éowyn over the past few years than had Éomer. To the degree permitted, they had shared the danger of court intrigue and plotting behind the backs of their supposed betters; they had compromised their honor, lied to their king through omission and misdirection, and broken the laws of the land on principle.
And he had seen her grow colder, grow sterner… indeed, he had watched her wear herself out in the service of Rohan, to the point that she had at last prostrated herself—And is that not an apt term? he thought with an inward wince—to shield Edoras's last remaining Marshal. I am not her father, and I should not presume to think her my sister, he told himself firmly. Nevertheless, if she was not blood kin, she had certainly done as much for him as any blood-brother Háma had ever had. My apologies, Éomer!
"'Tis hard to say from here, but hear you that beat?" And when she nodded, he continued, "That is the sound of a battering ram. When it ceases, we shall know that the gates have fallen. After that…." He shrugged slightly. "Have you fought in mail before, my lady?"
"I have practiced with it at times."
"Then you know its weight," Háma replied as he turned to face her fully. Éomund's daughter stood tall and cold as ice, her long hair caught in a simple braid and coiled tightly at the base of her neck to keep it out of her face. Very young she looked, and her radiance muted, yet she did not fidget or tremble. That may be a good sign… or it may not, Háma thought. He had seen many a young lad before his first battle: some could not hold still, others threw up; some wept, and some chattered like idiots.
And some of them do not move at all, as if they had been turned to stone. Unpredictable, those few… sometimes tragically so. "My lady," he said therefore, reaching out to touch her shoulder gently, commanding with that touch and tone her complete attention. Cocking her head, she turned dark blue eyes upon him, and Háma considered his next words carefully ere he spoke. "I do not doubt that what training you have received is among the best in the land. I do not doubt your courage, for I have seen it too often to believe you will wilt before a threat. But this is not the practice ground, and when they come through those gates you may not hesitate. Weep if you must—none shall think less of you—but be certain you do not miss your target. That is the only honor that matters here. Do you understand?"
Éowyn was silent for a moment, but then she nodded, once and sharply, and she did not smile as she said gravely, "I understand. Do you the same."
"Never fear," Háma muttered, turning back to watch the darkened streets of Edoras. And it was then that he realized that he heard no longer the ram.
"Fall back!" Legolas unfolded from his crouch at Aragorn's command, and he darted along the catwalk as the archers closest to the gates began their retreat, shooting as they went. There was little danger of hitting one of their own men, for the enemy spilled in through the ruined gates like a black tide. Of course, the Dunlendings could now employ their own archers more effectively, and the man to Legolas's left jerked suddenly and collapsed with an arrow protruding from his chest. And I begin to run short of shafts! the prince thought, even as he let off another shot and reached for his quiver once more. Beside him, Aragorn ducked an arrow and responded with one of his own, having claimed a bow and quiver from a fallen comrade early on.
As they approached the stairs that led down into the streets below, they began to bottleneck, as some of the archers took positions at the top of the steps and others fought to move past them, creating a tiered defense should any enemies attempt to follow them. Curses sounded in the night, for now the parapets that had protected them became a hindrance, constraining them to a space too narrow for easy maneuvering.
"By pairs, and keep shooting!" Aragorn snapped, thrusting an arm between a trio that attempted to extricate itself from the crush. He shoved two of the men forward and waited a beat ere he indicated the next two. "Go!" That helped, and as the line strung out and began to move more smoothly, Legolas waited patiently. There was no question that he would remain with Aragorn, and the others seemed to sense that, giving him what berth they could as they ran to their next position.
Below them rose the sounds of combat: war cries in strange tongues, the clamor and shriek of metal on metal, of violent collision… of agony as wounded and dying men fell before their enemies. Legolas could just make out what seemed to be a defensive formation centered around a standard, but he doubted that any but an Elf would be able to pick it out in the darkness and chaos. Nevertheless, he was certain that Éomer stood there, and with him Gimli. I wonder how he fares? Can he truly handle that ax with only one hand? Legolas wondered as he bent his bow again.
His own injury troubled him little as of yet, for having fought his way back from the grips of his own despair and confusion, and freed now from the interference of the wizard's puppet, he had recourse to an Elf's active dream-life. All he need do was dream a place that matched the reality of the moment, save for the absence of pain. Such was the way of the Elves when necessity pressed hard, and so long as the body could physically tolerate the strain, and the mind remained disciplined, an Elf might last for days where a human would wither in moments. Alas, Gimli has no such escape! And neither shall Éomer or Aragorn. And even my strength will fail in the end, when flesh can no longer withstand the demands of the mind. But for the moment, unhampered by Gríma's proxy assaults, he felt nothing save a slight weakness, and for that he could compensate.
The routine of war claimed him, and he moved with it: there was but the bow and the battlefield below, punctuated by the necessary evasive dance to deny the enemy another victim. His Rohirric comrades flowed through the lens of elvish perception as an ant trail or a current in a river, predictable in its overall movement despite the chaos of its individual parts. Only Aragorn and those on the steps remained steady in that shifting stream, waiting for the last of the men to pass them by.
Something flared in the darkness below, and there came cries as the thatched roofs of some of the buildings—homes? Shops?—caught fire from a volley of flaming arrows. Legolas blinked, adjusting to the sudden glare of light, and then he smiled wickedly as he caught sight of the enemy at last. Dunlendings, orcs, and some who seemed to hover between the two races, hybrids without hope—Legolas picked a particularly large uruk and took swift but careful aim ere he loosed the shaft. As he nocked his next arrow, his target convulsed and collapsed, an elvish arrow buried in its chest. At his side, Aragorn cursed softly, and Legolas shifted his attention minutely to ask, "What is it?"
"They are already past them and into the streets. Éomer must retreat soon or he risks being cut off!" Aragorn replied tautly, laying a gauntleted hand on the elf's shoulder. "Come! Stair guard, fall back!" They ran after their fellows, pausing every so often to lend support to the positions that they passed, and Legolas grimaced. The enemy was moving swiftly—more swiftly, even, than anticipated despite the overwhelming numbers. We may not last a full day, the prince realized. A swift glance up at Aragorn's face, visible in the starlight to elvish eyes, confirmed that premonition. The Ranger felt his stare, tearing his eyes from the scenes of death below to gaze for a moment at Legolas, and then he shook his head. "Come! We cannot linger!" And as the pair fell back, last of all in the line of archers, arrows whistled past them as their comrades shot beyond them to fell the first wave of enemies who streamed up the stairs behind them.
"Steady as you go!" Éomer shouted the command, sparing a moment to signal one of his lieutenants to take control of the fleeing left flank. Not that speed was not of the essence, but if they broke formation, they would never manage the next hundred yards. Only a hundred yards, and then we reach the barriers! So short a distance, a pittance for one with a horse or even one reasonably swift, and yet so very far tonight as the enemy pressed them now from three sides. I should have retreated sooner! Éomer cursed softly, acknowledging his fault. But he had not expected that the orcs and Dunlendings would be quite so quick to take up the pursuit. Of course, orcs grew fiercer when the numbers favored them, but even so, a determined resistance tended to make them more cautious.
But they know we are doomed. They can smell it, likely, for I can. They feel their master's triumph. Against such an outpouring of hateful glee and his own despair, it was a struggle to maintain discipline, and Éomer clung to it with painful tenacity. Ten yards became twenty, and twenty, fifty as Éomer marched his men back, step by step, and the wedge formation bent to accommodate the line of attack. In Gondor, they would have called it a thangail, but the Rohirrim had a taste for gallows' humor: they called it an opengrin, an open snare. And I fear that there may be no way to hold it open! Éomer thought, silently marking off another five yards in his mind.
He would never know how they managed that retreat without being surrounded, but somehow, they did, and as they passed that invisible line, a sudden hail of arrows and stone erupted. At the same time, wagons and barrels that had been kept inside deserted houses were pushed out into the gap that opened as the foremost ranks of their enemies staggered forward, trying to escape the missiles. The others were caught behind the makeshift barrier for a fatal instant and the snipers and pike men hidden on rooftops and the upper floors of shops set upon them. That left the thirty or so orcs and Dunlendings that had broken through for the ragged survivors of Éomer's company. With a cry, the Rohirrim flung themselves back at their hunters, intent upon snatching such revenge as they might have ere they were forced to retreat again to the next choke-point. Éomer cried out, caught between hate and lust as he blocked a Dunlending's sword and moved forward to stab through the other's armor as if it were naught but cloth. The dying man's left hand gripped at his chest, closing on mail as the sword clattered to the ground and for a moment, the two stared at each other.
"Ha!" Blood splashed hot on Éomer's face and his opponent gave a gasp, then slid bonelessly through the Third Marshal's grasp. As he fell, a knife struck sparks on the stony walkway as it skittered out of the dead man's hand, and Gimli the Dwarf hefted his axe as he quirked a brow up at Éomer. "He who stands still is lost, Third Marshal! Move!" Glóin's son snarled at him, spinning his axe as he ducked under an orc's rush and then used that momentum to cleave through bone and flesh. Éomer shook himself, forcing himself away from the moment.
"To me, Eorlingas! Fall back!" For the tide was turning once more, and as those staging the ambush retreated to swell Éomer's ranks, he drew a deep breath. Concentrate, son of Éomund! Do not become your father in this! "Fall back! Gimli," he added as the other trotted past him. And when he paused a moment, Éomer said simply, "Thank you."
"Live, Éomer. That is thanks enough!"
"For a little while at least!" he murmured, and though Gimli's eyes darkened at that, the Dwarf did not dispute his reply. Éomer glanced up quickly at the archers now fleeing along the rooftops, and then turned, calling orders to his men as he jogged up the sloping street. Where is Aragorn? Has he reached the halfway mark yet? In the darkness, it was impossible to tell, and he had no time in any case to worry much about the other's likely predicament. The next point was four long blocks away, and the crash and clatter of wood told him that the barrier was down behind him.
A Wood Elf on the heights is in his element, and a wise opponent will not challenge him while he remains there. For Legolas had learned to dance along pathways far more precarious than the stony catwalks of Edoras, and when Aragorn ordered a stand, he turned on his enemies with the fierce grace of his kind. The archers along the eastern stretch of Edoras's ramparts had retreated past two stairways now, and approached a tower which would shield them for awhile from their foes. But ere any could retreat beyond that relative safety, the orcs and Dunlendings must be stayed awhile, and Legolas put away his bow even as he swept out his long dagger. Aragorn beside him had Andúril in his hands, and behind them Men unsheathed their blades, waiting for their turn. For the walk was broad enough for two men to fight effectively side by side, but no more, and though it was not so very far to the tower, against so eager an enemy, it seemed unlikely that two men—or rather, one Man and an Elf—could hold their places until they reached the door.
"Elbereth!" Legolas hurled the name across the gap into his enemy's face and followed that cry with a stiff-knuckled blow just under the chin with his left hand, even as he swept his dagger upwards, aiming for the exposed portion of the Dunlending's throat. His left hand he pulled back and down, elbowing aside his opponent's strike as his own went in with the precision that comes of a millennium of practice. And then it was on to the next man, and the next, in what seemed an endless line of opponents as he backed slowly towards safety, letting his enemies leap over their fallen comrades to reach him.
At his side, Aragorn had a dagger in one hand and Andúril in the other, using his sword more as a shield, out of respect for the close quarters and Legolas's injury which might hamper his ability to compensate for a partner's maneuvers. And in truth, the Elf was grateful for the courtesy as he began to feel the strain of a prolonged fight. With a snarl, he ducked under a strike and transferred his blade to his left hand to spare his right shoulder. Even as he did so, two arrows shot through the air overhead to fell his opponent. Then it was on to the next man as behind him the Rohirrim began to mutter amongst themselves in awe as, despite the odds, Elf and Ranger continued the slow retreat, giving the rest of the men time to pass through the double doors to the other side and such respite as could be had.
"Rohan!" The cry drifted down, and of a sudden, arrows came once more, a solid volley as men reached arrow-loops further up in the tower and began to shoot down over their captain's head.
"Run!" Aragorn snapped, turning to sink his sword deep into Legolas's opponent ere he wrenched free and dashed for the door. The Elf wasted no time in following, and as they reached it, their waiting comrades slammed it shut and placed a metal bar across it to hold it closed. Legolas leaned his left shoulder against the wall, surreptitiously drawing a deep breath as he wiped sweat and blood from his brow, and he blinked against the sudden dimming of his vision. The Darkness again! "Bæcweard, her restath! Sceotanas, haeldath éower stede!" As responses came back, a gloved hand landed on his shoulder, and Legolas felt Aragorn lean close to ask quietly, "Are you well?"
"Are any of us?" Legolas asked, drawing a hand over his eyes ere he straightened up, unwilling to let others remark his lapse.
"The door should hold for a time, but our arrows are nearly spent. Once the last flight is loosed, we move on to the inner keep as swiftly as we may. I would rather have you at my side, but I think it best that you join the van rather than remain with the rearguard. Do not argue with me in this, Legolas!" the Ranger added, sensing a protest rising. "Rohan may never have seen your like, but I know well that that was not your best defense."
"Nevertheless, it was adequate," Legolas replied, but then he held up a hand to stay the other's retort. "I do not argue with you, and I shall obey, if not happily. This is not the time for contention. Only take care, Aragorn."
A brief silence greeted this admonition, and then the hand on his shoulder tightened. Legolas could feel in that touch the other's concern, his fear… his quiet despair. "I shall. Go now with Bethor and retreat to the keep." With that, Aragorn turned away, raising his voice to address said Bethor in Rohirric. The man nodded and, obedient to the Ranger's orders, the men divided themselves up: those who had arrows, and those who did not. Once the rearguard began its retreat, they would all be utterly dependant upon sword-work until they reached the gates of the inner keep and the fyrd guard could provide them with cover.
"Forth, gáth!" Bethor's gruff voice snapped out the command and they began to move. Legolas ran in their midst, feeling as a leaf borne away by the wind. The tower receded behind them, and when he dared a glance back over his shoulder, he could no longer see Aragorn standing in the door frame.
"We are cut off." At that, Gimli glanced up wearily at the tall-standing silhouette beside him, watching as the dimly flickering light of home and hope gone up in ashes played on the Third Marshal's face. Blood soaked his tabard, and grime from the flames coated him, underscoring his pale skin and eyes. A cut on one cheek from a back-handed swipe was encrusted with it, and Éomer exhaled slowly, gripping his sword tightly. He had lost his shield some time ago to a blow that had cracked the wood down to the metal boss, but thus far no enemy had managed to take advantage of that loss.
"Can we cut our way through?"
The Man grimaced and gestured with his sword at the corpse-strewn streets, the men crouching anxiously behind what cover they could find, waiting for the next assault. "I doubt it. We shall do well to hold here even an hour, for we are too few now. I should not have thought they would come so swiftly or fiercely. 'Tis as if they see not the danger to themselves…."
"Perhaps they do not," Gimli replied darkly. "Perhaps the wizard blinds them to it, driving them onward. Often on this journey have I wondered at my own weariness, and that of my companions. At Legolas in especial…." The Dwarf shook his head. "Whatever force it is lends them strength, I shall be content enough if it does not leech me of mine!" Éomer grunted at that, seeming to agree, but he spoke no more, only watched the night in silence.
And Gimli sighed softly to himself as he gazed up at the heights to the east, wondering if Legolas and Aragorn had yet reached the keep, or if they, too, were trapped, held in place by an enemy too strong to overcome. Good luck, my friends! For I do not think I shall see you again, unless Mahal himself intervenes. And as it seemed more likely that lightning would strike, the Dwarf settled himself for the final, grim wait. I would have liked to stand at your side, Legolas, and to assure Aragorn that one can, indeed, wield an axe one-handed. Ah well. Mayhap there will be another place for such words. Clouds out of the northwest, moving down from the mountains, crept over the sky, and as the winds began to blow in earnest, the enemy swept forward once more.
thangail: military formation. See "Unfinished Tales", p. 294 for a full explanation. Essentially an arc that curves back until it closes.
Bæcweard, her restath! Sceotanas, haeldath éower stede!—Rearguard, stay here! Archers, hold your post!
Thanks to HF for suggesting "bæcweard" for "rearguard."
Finally, the fyrd guard that I refer to is not something I personally have researched. My source (sadly) is Park Godwin's most excellent Robin Hood story, "Sherwood." As it was used there, the fyrd men were free men who made up a part of a lord's levy. They usually didn't wield swords--I think that might have been illegal--but formed the archery contingent or were in with pikes, clubs, etc. I like the idea, so I'm borrowing them, real or fictional, for Rohan.
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