16. Chapter 16
There suddenly upon a ridge appeared a rider, clad in white, shining in the rising sun. Over the low hills the horns were sounding. Behind him, hastening down the long slopes, were a thousand men on foot; their swords were in their hands. Amid them strode a man tall and strong. His shield was red. As he came to the valley's brink, he set to his lips a great black horn and blew a ringing blast.
'Erkenbrand!' the Riders shouted. 'Erkenbrand!'
'Behold the White Rider!' cried Aragorn. 'Gandalf is come again!'
'Mithrandir, Mithrandir!' said Legolas. 'This is wizardry indeed! Come! I would look on this forest, ere the spell changes.'
The hosts of Isengard roared, swaying this way and that, turning from fear to fear. Again the horn sounded from the tower. Down through the breach of the Dike charged the king's company. Down from the hills leaped Erkenbrand, lord of Westfold. Down leaped Shadowfax, like a deer that runs surefooted in the mountains. The White Rider was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness. The wild men fell on their faces before him. The Orcs reeled and screamed and cast aside both sword and spear. Like a black smoke driven by a mounting wind they fled. Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again.
The Two Towers. J. R. R. Tolkien
March 4th 3019 – Dawn
Helm’s Deep – The Riddermark.
“We will all stand with you, Éomer.” Welwyn said. Assuming the authority of the daughter of the Lord, she directed the other women to take up positions behind him.
Chattering together, as if they had used their bloodied swords for no more than butchering game, her recruits were flushed with success. But Éomer knew the horror would come later: the Uruk hacked to pieces in anger and fury would invade dreams and haunt quiet moments of those unused to killing. Even a Shield-maiden like Erkenbrand’s daughter would find that the training grounds were a poor substitute for the terrible carnage of battle.
Welwyn must have caught his thought for she leant towards him, her voice low. “There is no choice for us, Éomer, no point in doing otherwise. These women have children hidden in the caves. They will fight to the death for them.”
He nodded, setting his face to show none of the turmoil that raged in him. It might come to that. And having sworn to himself that he would protect the women, the prospect tore at his heart. But Welwyn was right: there was little choice with so few of his men still standing. He could only put himself at the front and take the brunt of the assault, hoping to hang on until some relief came. Gimli stood like a rock to his left, and Gamling had rallied. Éothain would be the last to fall, but many of his Riders had been pulled back into the caves, to die or recover, he did not know.
Not wasting any more time mulling on something he couldn’t change, he positioned the defenders he had. Welwyn took up a place on his right, with Éothain on her other side. Lips drawn into a tight line, her breath came rapidly, but it was determination and not fear that showed on her face. The other women stood amongst the few men left, swords ready. But the orcs didn’t charge and stayed huddled in a group, a couple with their backs to him.
“We are glad to have you, Welwyn. You have joined the Mark’s finest éored.” Éothain voice was edged with laughter. Only he could find anything to joke about in such a situation.
“Finest! My father would have something to say about that,” she muttered, but her grim expression lightened a little.
Éomer stopped listening as they bantered on; concentrating on watching the orcs who still clustered together. Why didn’t they attack? What were they doing? Suddenly he saw a small flicker of flame. Bema! What was that? The truth came quickly when he saw the ball of iron one had in its claws – they’d already blown a hole in the Deeping Wall with some devilry from Isengard, now it looked like the orc commander meant to blast the entrance to the caves, knocking them all out at the same time. Not waiting to have his suspicions confirmed, he charged forward, dimly aware of the others following him. He bowled the first two orcs over just as Éothain landed on a third, giving it a great push. It dropped the iron ball, the taper sparking on the damp, rocky floor. Éomer tried to reach it with his foot, but was instantly set upon by two more orcs. “The taper! Douse the taper!” he yelled at the top of his voice. Welwyn ran her sword through one of his attackers. He chopped the other in the throat and then dived to the ground, landing his whole body on top of the burning taper. The force of his breast plate hitting against the metal squashed the flame, and knocked the wind from him.
“That was foolish!” Gimli hooked his arm and pulled him up.
Not so foolish as letting it burn! But thankfully his quick thinking had given them some respite: with their plan gone awry, the orcs retreated along the narrows – to consider their next move, probably. Then some of the injured men reappeared from the caves. Stitched and bandaged by Winfrith and her team, they wanted to rejoin the fray. Taking advantage of the lull, Éomer sent Gimli back to have a gash on his head seen to. It was not serious, but blood had run down his face and congealed in his beard. Bread, cheese and ale appeared, welcome, but eaten with one hand, none of the warriors wishing to put down their swords for a moment, fearing the orcs would launch a surprise attack.
They did just that as Éomer shoved the last mouthful in. With new determination, the orcs fell on them in a furious assault, spitting and cursing their hate. The attack was so fierce, and the numbers of assailant so great, that fighting to the death became a harsh reality. Never had Éomer fought with such desperation. No fancy sword play here: he hacked at orc after orc as they hurled themselves at him, until his arm and shoulder burnt with fire. And no chance to take account of any of his companions except Gimli, who had returned just in time, and stood like the mountain itself — solid and indestructible. It couldn’t go on, he knew that. But worse, echoes of blasts above reached them through the rock. For all he knew the whole Burg could be crumbling. Then, without warning, a mighty noise assaulted his ears. The clamour reverberated around the rock wall, bouncing back and forth in an orgy of sound which set his ears ringing. What the..?
“They’re sounding the horn,” Éothain shouted in his ear, adding to the pain.
Of course! The Horn of Helm Hammerhand! Something must be happening up there! With sudden hope Éomer raised his sword.
“For the Mark,” he yelled, charging straight at the panicking orcs, who had their claws over their ears and were looking wildly around for escape. But one of the Uruks rallied them, and the fighting was fierce again. But then the horn sounded once more, and at the same time the Uruk fell with Gimli’s axe buried in its stomach. The remaining orcs turned and fled.
Éomer dropped his head, he felt sick. No euphoria of triumph – they had come too close to disaster to feel any joy. If it hadn’t been for the women, orcs would be plundering the caves, slaughtering the children and raping their mothers. He looked up, those mothers had…No! No, not that! A woman had been thrown against the rock wall, the blood from her head-wound matted in her long fair hair. He couldn’t see who it was as Gamling was bending over her. But whoever, it was too late: she was dead. He’d seen too many bodies not to know. And then he gasped again, a knot of fear twisting in his guts: Éothain stood a few yards from him; he had Welwyn in his arms. Her skin pallid, blood ran down her face from a gash that went from her forehead down the side of her face, just missing her ear.
Éothain’s eyes glistened with tears. “Get someone, Éomer! I am not going to let her die!”
Two things happened before he could react – someone shouted from the direction of the entrance that it was over, they had beaten the enemy back, and Lady Winfrith appeared from the caves, her linen apron covered with blood. She took one look at her daughter and her face blanched, her hands clenching at her sides. But when she spoke it was with firm authority.
“If the Burg is still standing we will set up the healing station in the hall. Éomer, you had better go and find out what is going on, and send me some uninjured men to carry the casualties I have in the caves.” She turned to look at the burden in Éothain’s arms, her body stiffening. “Éothain, put her down, and I will take a look.”
“Not here, I won’t. She’s no weight, and I am not putting her down in the muck.”
With one glance back to where Éothain cradled Welwyn against his chest, Éomer hurried off. His hardnosed friend had finally managed to surprise him.
Bodies everywhere, they filled the Deep. Riders, orcs and horses. Firefoot! His stomach lurched; he’d left him in the Inner Court. Had that been breeched? But more pressing, he rounded up some men to help Winfrith. By then, Gamling and Gimli had caught up with him. The gash in the dwarf’s head must have opened up, because the bandage was soaked with blood, and Gamling was limping, but they ran out through the Dike, emerging into the daylight and a different world. Trees! The vale was full of trees. Éomer gave a great shout of joy as he saw Gandalf – his doing no doubt. Théoden was there also, with Erkenbrand, Aragorn and Legolas.
Amazed and overjoyed, Éomer listened to the account of the parts of the battle he had missed – Théoden and his guards riding out; Gandalf arriving with Erkenbrand and the Westfold men; the strange trees that Gandalf claimed had little to do with him. Now he heard they were going to Isengard to confront Saruman, but as he listened to Théoden’s instructions, something Aragorn was saying took his attention.
“I will tend it while you rest, Gimli.”
Aragorn still had his great sword in his hand, the mail Théoden had given him was bloodied and rent, and his hair was matted with gore – an image of the fierce warrior he had proved to be. But the care in his voice alerted Éomer, confirming his suspicion that Elendil’s heir could do more than fight. “You have skill in healing?” he asked
Aragorn nodded, a wisp of some unsettling memory passing over his face. “I was brought up in Rivendell. Master Elrond has great power, and what knowledge he could, he has passed to me.”
Éomer motioned with his head, drawing him away from Erkenbrand’s hearing to speak softly into his ear. “Welwyn, Erkenbrand’s daughter, has been injured, maybe unto death. She fought bravely defending the children. If there is any chance of saving her...”
Aragorn did not hesitate. “I will come. There will be many that cling to life and need only a hand to pull them back from the abyss. But I will need my pack.” He looked around, “Hasufel carries it for me.”
Surprising Éomer, Aragorn gave a low whistle and Hasufel, who was searching for a few pieces of untrammelled grass on the edge of the stream, looked up with ears pricked. Another whistle and the horse trotted over.
“You speak to them as one of us,” Éomer said. Moment by moment this Ranger from the North impressed him more.
Aragorn raised a dark eyebrow. “Did I not say that I knew your father? I have ridden this way before. But we must talk later of these matters. For those who lie close to death, and for us who have to leave with the King, time presses.”
Taking their leave of Théoden, the two men headed towards the Burg, but as they went to cross the stream Éomer stopped. A flood of relief surged through him: Garrick was leading Firefoot out. The stallion pranced and posed, giving his handler a hard time. Then the horse saw his master, let out a loud whinny in greeting and yanked his head to the side, almost pulling the reins from Garrick’s hands. Éomer shouted a command and the horse quietened, shaking his head in frustration.
“He didn’t like being left,” Aragorn told him. “Wanted to come with us when we rode out.”
“I bet he did!” Éomer waited for Garrick to lead him over, admiring the way his stallion moved. “I’ll just give my squire some instructions.”
Aragorn started to undo his mail. “Do that. And I will clean myself up a bit. We need to hurry, but I cannot attend to the sick like this.”
By the time Éomer had told Garrick to take Firefoot to graze, Aragorn was bare-chested. “It seems the older one gets the more scars one accrues,” Éomer remarked, taking in the criss-cross of raised lines that marred Aragorn’s muscled body.
“A life spent as a warrior comes with a price,” Aragorn answered. With a wry grin he knelt down and plunged his head into the icy water of the Deeping stream, washing hair, face and hands in one go.
Éomer looked down at himself, screwing up his nose at the sight and smell of orc blood. So following the ranger’s example, he took off his pauldrons, vambraces and breastplate, struggling with blood-soaked straps. “Garrick! Come back afterwards and see to this lot will you!” His squire stopped and looked back, nodding when he saw Éomer gesturing to the growing pile of armour.
Another effort and the mail dropped in a pool at his feet. He put his helmet right on top, the white horsetail staking claim to the stinking heap. No clean shirt to hand so he would have to manage without. But anyway, it would have to be a quick clean up. “Great Bema!” He gasped for breath. Perhaps ducking his head straight under the water hadn’t been such a good idea: it must be pure snowmelt.
“You’ve been living too soft.” Aragorn threw at him. He rummaged in his pack and pulled out a crumpled, greyish-colour shirt, holding it up to his nose and sniffing, before pulling it over his head. “Slightly cleaner, I think.”
Éomer stood up, running his hands backwards through his mane of hair and twisting it to get the water out. The worst of the filth had gone, but that was about all he could say. The rest of him would have to wait: he needed to get Aragorn to Welwyn. Not quite sure why he had such faith in the healing powers of a man who had fought so ferociously beside him. But being brought up with the elves must mean something. An unheralded longing coursed thorough him: for the time to talk together; for tales to be shared around a campfire; for peace.
But for now he had deal with the aftermath of their fearsome fight, and Welwyn in particular. She deserved to have every chance, but, besides that, he wanted to rid Éothain’s face of the despair he had glimpsed there. First though, they had to get to the Hall, which meant winding their way between rubble, the discarded weapons of Saruman’s army and the throng of men moving bodies – orcs and Rohirrim. Already the fallen Riders were being put into two piles, East-mark and West-mark. Éomer averted his eyes, not wanting to name the dead yet. He would cope with that later, for the moment the living had priority. But then he stopped with a jolt, recognising the remnants of the uniform of the King’s Guard on a mutilated body. A strong hand grasped his arm.
“I am afraid so.” The sorrow in Aragorn’s voice mirrored his own pain. “Háma fell before the gates, right at the end.”
“Damn!” Éomer clenched his fist until it hurt. “He was a good man. A true friend.”
“Yes. I am sorry.”
Nodding abruptly, Éomer started walking again. Everyone had lost friends. And sons, husbands, fathers, even daughters. It went on and on. When would it stop! He strode through the Outer Court in a daze. Théodred! Hama! How many more of those close to him would he loose? Had already done! No doubt he would find out soon.
The injured crowded the Inner Court. A makeshift roof of canvas was being hastily erected. Fires had been lit, and water put to heat in cauldrons suspended over them. Grim, grey faces on those who laboured with practised skill. All in the Westfold were used to this, having taken the brunt of Saruman’s malevolence these past months.
Éomer led Aragorn on through, the most seriously hurt would be inside. As he thought, the wounded had been laid out in rows in the hall. He’d never shirked visiting his injured riders, but it was the smell and the noise that always got to him: the whimpers of men in pain, trying to hang on to their dignity with their guts spilling out; the screams when the healers cauterised their wounds; the stench of charred flesh; the fetid odour of fear that came from the terror of dying, and the panic spawned by the thought of being maimed and useless. The awful aftermath of battle, almost forgotten in the midst of the struggle to survive, was now laid bare all around him.
“I will see Welwyn first and then assist here.” Aragorn said.
The sight had affected Aragorn too, Éomer could tell from the tightness around his lips and the way his chest heaved. But speaking of it would do no good. “She’ll be up there, I imagine.” he answered, gesturing to the end of the hall where woven screens had been put up around the dais. He just hoped she still lived and they were not too late. As they got closer he saw that Éothain was sitting on the steps, head in hands. He still wore his bloodied armour and Éomer wondered if he had fallen asleep. But as they approached, his friend looked up; eyes dull with fatigue and misery.
“Is Welwyn there?” Éomer asked, gesturing to the screens, and dreading to hear the answer.
Éothain nodded. “She’s not woken up. It’s like she is in a deep sleep. But they won’t let me near her.”
Éomer dropped his hand on Éothain’s shoulder. “I am not surprised, the state you are in. Go and clean yourself up. Aragorn is going to tend to her.”
Éothain made a sound like a snort. “What does he know about it?”
But Aragorn did not take offence. “I was brought up with the elves. My foster father is Middle-earth’s most gifted healer.”
Straightening up rapidly, a light appeared in Éothain’s eyes. “You can bring her out of her torpor?”
“I can try. Go and wash up, as Éomer says. And I will do my best.” With only a slight hesitation and a longing glance at the screen, Éothain obeyed. Aragorn’s eyes followed him for a moment and then he turned to Éomer. “He has feelings for her?”
Éomer shrugged. “It seems so. Although not before today to my knowledge. If fact, the last time he saw her in Edoras they had an argument, some disagreement about stable-craft when he tried to tell her how to look after her horse.” He grinned at the memory. “She told him he was an insufferable know-all, and he said she was an opinionated sauce-box.”
Aragorn returned his grin. “Sounds promising. So let us waste no more time.”
Lady Winfrith was sitting on a stool, sponging Welwyn’s forehead. She looked up frowning when she saw the two men appear, soaking the cloth again and wringing out the water. “Éomer, if that friend of yours is still hanging around outside, then take him away, will you. He’s doing no good at all. We have cleansed and stitched the wound, and she may wake, or she may not. Only the Valar can help her now.” Winfrith’s unemotional words belied the desperation that crossed her face when she looked at her daughter.
Hair covered by a linen kerchief, the line of neat stitches stood out vividly against Welwyn’s pale skin. She looked young and vulnerable. Eyes closed, she lay completely still, her breath ragged and shallow. To Éomer it looked hopeless: all life had drained from her face.
“Has she woken at all?” Aragorn asked.
“What?” Winfrith stared at him, her eyes narrowing as she tried to work out who he was.
“Aragorn has come to help, Winfrith. He was brought up in Rivendell with the elves.”
Winfrith stood up, pursing her lips as she sought to get the measure of the stranger. “Well, I suppose any help is welcome. She has been unconscious all the time. But Healer Sigeweard says we can do nothing but wait.”
“I agree it is the normal treatment, but I may be able to bring her back to us, if you would allow me to try.”
Coming to a decision Winfrith gave him a curt nod, gesturing with her hand to the vacated stool. Aragorn sat down, but before doing anything else, he fumbled in his pack, bringing out a scruffy package of oilskin. When he unwrapped it on his lap, Éomer saw that it contained a few dried, withered leaves.
“I need some bowls of hot water, Lady Winfrith. One for Welwyn, and a couple to spread amongst the other wounded. In my hands the essence of the athelas plant sometimes has the power to draw back those in danger of releasing their hold on life.”
Winfrith opened her eyes wide, but without comment she quickly disappeared around the screen. Still with the athelas on his lap, Aragorn reached out his hand and placed it on Welwyn’s head. He closed his eyes, muttering something Éomer could not hear.
The muttering seemed to go on for ever, and Éomer kept his gaze fixed on Welwyn. She hadn’t moved, but he was sure her breathing had become stronger. An eyelid flickered just as Winfrith returned, a bowl of steaming water in her hands. Aragorn must have sensed her presence because, with his hand still connecting to Welwyn, he opened his eyes and motioned Winfrith to put the bowl down by his feet.
A sprinkling of the leaves in the water produced an uplifting, fresh fragrance that blotted out the noxious odours coming from the sick-hall. Aragorn spoke some words in a language that Éomer guessed was a form of elvish, and, as though struggling with a heavy weight, Welwyn’s eyes slowly opened.
She blinked a few times, and then let out a deep groan struggling to pull her hand from under the blanket. Aragorn smoothed his hand across her forehead. “Does your head hurt?”
She nodded, wincing with the pain of movement. Her eye-brows drew together as she searched a face she did not recognise, and her voice came out hoarsely. “Who are you?”
“I am Aragorn. You have been unconscious, Welwyn, but you will be well soon.” He took his hand from her head moving down to clasp her fingers, which released from the confining blanket were scrabbling towards the wound on her face.
“Leave it now; your mother will give you something for the pain, and to help you to sleep. When you wake again the headache will be gone.”
But the scar wouldn’t, Éomer thought. He hoped Welwyn would be able to wear it with pride.
Aragorn got up to give the seat back to Winfrith just as they heard a commotion outside. The screen moved sideways and a bulky warrior shoved his way past, filling the gap with his large frame.
“What’s this about my daughter,” he bellowed. “Éothain said she was injured and …”he stopped as Éomer’s and Aragorn’s presence registered. “So it’s true…”
“Keep your voice down,” Lady Winfrith ordered. “You are in a place of healing.”
But Erkenbrand didn’t need to be told, looking down at Welwyn he had gone rigid, the colour draining from his face. Éomer’s heart went out to him: the most hardened warriors were thrown by the sight of injured women and children, and for a father to see his own daughter lying wounded from battle would be devastating. The screen rocked again and Wilheard appeared, almost an image of his father, but still in his mail and carrying his helm. His craggy face blanched to a pasty-white when he saw his sister. Saying nothing, Éomer stepped backwards towards the opening, wanting to give the family some peace and privacy. Aragorn followed him, with only a grateful smile coming from Winfrith to acknowledge their departure.
Still on the dais, but the other side of the screen, both men surveyed the hall. Women, helpers and healers clustered around the wounded, but even so, some calm had descended. Éomer wondered if it was the result of the pungent scent of the athelas that was stealing outwards from the bowl Aragorn held. As they stood there a woman appeared at the foot of the steps carrying two more bowls of steaming water. “Lady Winfrith said you wanted these, lord.”
“Yes, thank you.” Aragorn added some athelas to them, shaking out the last few leaves from the oilskin, and asked her to take one bowl to the opposite end of the hall and the other outside to the Inner Court where more wounded were being treated. Soon the fresh tang of this surprising plant filled the hall, and heads turned looking for the source of the unexpected comfort. “You’d better introduce me to Healer Sigeweard, Éomer, and I will make a start.”
Any thought that Aragorn’s presence might be resented by the Westfold’s healers could not have been further from the truth. With the vast numbers of injured, anyone who could bandage, stitch and cleanse gruesome wounds would have been welcome. Aragorn could do all of this. But also, to Éomer’s wonder, he possessed the ability to draw back from death those whom the healers had given up on.
Éomer stuck with him, not because he was able to assist in any other way than pass a pad or a needle, but because he could tell his riders appreciated him being there. Most of the Westfold men had their wives and families around, but for the men from his éoreds their loved ones were back in Aldburg. Lying on a pallet lonely and hurt, wondering about the future, they needed the personal contact.
Row after row they went down and all the injured tugged at his heart, but when he looked down on a pallet to see the familiar face of Guflaf, his stomach twisted. All that remained of the man’s left arm was a bandaged stump. Guflaf recognised him, but his eyes were bright and feverish, and immediately Aragorn started to bathe his forehead with the athelas water.
Accepting this without comment, the veteran rider took some deep breaths as though gathering his strength. “It looks like you’ll have to manage without me, lad. I don’t think I will be up to riding with you again.”
Éomer smiled at the familiarity. He might be a Marshal, but he would always remain a lad to this man. Guflaf had taught him so much since that first unforgettable patrol when he was only sixteen.
“No, perhaps not. But you will be able to take the time to teach that new grandson of yours to ride. And there will be plenty of others to benefit from learning from an old warhorse like you.”
Guflaf nodded. “Maybe,” he murmured, but his eyes were already closing in sleep.
Éomer sought Aragorn’s eyes in question. The ranger shrugged, not committing himself to an answer. Infection only too prevalent in such conditions. They moved away to the next man, and Éomer caught sight of Éothain. His armour removed and looking decidedly cleaner, he headed purposefully towards the dais. In spite of the horror around him Éomer chuckled to himself. His feisty friend must be serious if he was prepared to brave Erkenbrand and Wilheard.
They went on, man after man. Many past even the help Aragorn could give. Until eventually Éomer caught hold of his arm. “Come, you have done enough. You must eat and rest, for soon we are to ride to Isengard.”
Aragorn stretched wearily, rubbing the back of his neck with long fingers, cleaned and softened by the constant washing and bathing. He blinked away his tiredness, a hint of a smile forming on chapped lips. “And you, Son of Éomund. You need rest also; I doubt that mettlesome beast you ride will be content to let you fall asleep on his back.”
Éomer laughed into his teasing eyes, grateful that with all the horror and loss of the night past, he had gained what he knew would be an enduring friendship. “I am hoping Gandalf will put a spell on him.”
March 8th 3019
Only wanting a bit of exercise, sea air, and relief from the crowded palace, Lothíriel still had to don uniform to walk on the wall, lest the sight of a woman incited more vulgar reactions from the riff-raff Umar had employed. She was lucky: Amroth had long grown out of the tunic she wore, and being tall, it all but fitted her. But the seamstresses had been busy with many of the others. A lot of alteration had been needed to fit Meren out in men’s clothes. Not that her sister-in-law had taken a turn patrolling, but dressing as a man was the only way she was allowed on the wall. And not surprisingly, like Lothíriel herself, many were drawn to it. The enemy were out there - they couldn’t be ignored – so you wanted to look.
Spared most of the ceaseless pacing of the battlements because of the increasing number of sick children to deal with, Lothíriel only went up to gaze out when her duties permitted. Childhood illnesses always thrived when families lived in such close quarters, and she supposed they were lucky it was nothing more serious than the itching-pox. Although unpleasant, when treated with salves made from oatmeal and comfrey to combat the discomfort, and willow-bark to ease the fever, it normally left no lasting effects.
The square thronged with children. Lothíriel had to jump back when a group ran past her, squealing and shouting, deeply involved in some chasing game. For those who were sick there were twice as many with boundless energy, competing with the dogs in their noise and squabbling. Then she saw that a long line of women had formed in the far corner. What were they doing? She craned her head. Soap! They were waiting for their ration of soap. Lothíriel gritted her teeth: clothes could manage without being washed for a while, but the soiled linen couldn’t. Diapers and pads that would normally be bleached clean on the rocks had to be soaked and hung in the palace gardens. All this upset because of one insane man!
Irritably, Lothíriel put on her helm as she made her way across to the wall – it was heavy and uncomfortable – how ever did the men fight wearing them? Peering up to the ramparts through the eye-slits, she could see the members of their bogus army in position. At least the thought of that got her lips twitching – not only the women had embraced the idea of fooling the besiegers into thinking the city was more heavily defended than it was, the old men had joined in as well. Fishermen and carpenters, weavers and scribes, all enjoyed dressing up as guards and marching up and down, clasping long spears against their shoulders. It relieved the monotony of the siege, as normal life had come to a halt. At least, it had cheered everyone for the first few days, now despondency had settled over the city. The women from the nearby villages chafed at the forced inactivity, considering marching up and down a waste of time when weeds grew in their gardens and seeds remained unsown. Those from the port worried about their little boats pulled up on the hard, the planks parting as they dried out in the sun, and the nets left open to the ravages of the birds.
Lothíriel had sympathised when they loaded their problems onto her, biting her lip to stop the retorts that entered her mind. If that was all they had to worry about, they should be dancing a jig! What did the people think was going to happen! That her father would come back and chase the Haradrim away, the Swan-knights running their great spears through the loathsome mercenaries, choking off the vile insults before they formed in their filthy mouths! She stopped, one foot on the first step that would take her up to the wall. No-one could hide from her what would happen. Did anyone really think Gondor’s armies could prevail against the awesome power of the Dark Lord? No! Umar would come for her – he would bring siege engines, catapults and ladders. The food would run out and however much the sham warriors looked the part – they would not be able to fight off trained soldiers storming the walls… and then what? A great bolt of fear jabbed at her, and she stumbled clutching the cold stone for support. Whatever Sergion said, shouldn’t she be giving herself up to save all the grief and horror from descending on her people?
Lothíriel stood still for a moment and closed her eyes. Chest heaving, she willed herself calm. She must be overtired because she realised the unrest in her had been building all day: unusually a couple of servants had felt the lash of her tongue that morning. She mustn’t let it get to her, not let a madman turn her into a frightened rabbit. She wanted to be brave but, even with friends about her, with all her family gone she felt so alone. But her father wouldn’t let her sacrifice herself, she knew he wouldn’t. The only thing was to keep going and not think of the uncertain future… deal with the problems of the moment – the sick children…the rationing of the food…the squabbles over bedspace…the pressure of living in an overcrowded city from which none could escape…
“Excuse me, Princess.”
Lothíriel jumped; startled out of her reverie by a guard bounding down the stone steps. Her garb might fool the watchers outside the walls, but this man had known her from childhood. He’d recognised her easily, as only a few of the women wore the everyday uniform of the Swan-knights. Mostly those, who like herself, were wearing their brothers’ cast-offs.
Reaching the top of the wall, Lothíriel took one of the spears kept in readiness for any fight; even though she had her bow across her back it was necessary to look the part of a serious defender. Sergion wanted no messages to go to Umar saying that they were weak. But neither did he want the men outside inflamed, which might encourage the firing of the port, or even reprisals against the villages further along the coast. So since the first day no arrows had been loosened, with the result that gradually the besiegers had moved nearer to the shelter of the walls, seeking respite from the salt-laden wind.
Not wanting to get involved in conversation with the cross-section of ‘guards’ who lined the ramparts, Lothíriel walked purposely to one of the raised battlements where only one watchmen – a real one – kept station.
He touched his helmet when she climbed up, winking at her. But it didn’t matter: he would have saluted one of the knights anyway. “Come for a bit of peace, Princess?” He chuckled. “I don’t blame you. I’m glad to be up here, all those whingeing children are driving me crazy.”
The children couldn’t help it, poor things! And a lot of them missed the freedom of the sea and the beaches. She missed it! Smiling her response, Lothíriel moved to the far side of the small space to look out over the wall. The Haradrim not actually on sentry duty sat in quiet groups, many playing a game with their neighbours. It looked to be a form of Tabula, it certainly appeared that the board folded together to make a carved wooden box, but it was difficult to tell at a distance. Dropping her eyes from the scarlet-clad warriors, she fixed her gaze on the crowd of ragged mercenaries who had clustered nearer to the wall. Being less warmly dressed than the Haradrim, and with no tents, the stone offered them some protection from the elements. One looked up, saw her watching him and made a rude gesture with his finger – filthy pig! But getting no reaction, he carried on with his game. No fancy boards here, just dice and stones. Sniffing, as she caught an aroma other than salt and sewerage on the wind, she looked across to the far side of the camp. An ox had been hoisted onto a huge spit. Where did they get that? With the stables virtually empty Sergion had ordered as much stock as possible to be brought inside, the rest had been driven into the hills to take their chances until better times.
And better times would come – she just had to believe that or…
“Lothíriel! Oh, thank goodness you are up there.” Meren’s anxious voice wafted up.
Lothíriel looked down to see her sister-in- law on the first step. “Meren don’t come up! Not carrying Alphros, he is getting too heavy.”
She might have saved her breath, by then Meren had nearly reached her. Dressed in a page’s outfit, she still looked much like a woman, and although a velvet hat covered her light-brown hair, curls were already escaping. “I think Alphros has it! He’s been grizzling all day. There are some red spots on his middle and he feels hot. No one can soothe him like you and …”
“You should have put him to bed and sent a servant, Meren.” Lothíriel admonished. But she smiled when she saw Meren’s stricken face, and Alphros cuddled against her breast with his thumb in his mouth. All mothers panicked. She softened her voice, “Go back down and I will follow.”
With a grateful smile, Meren turned, but as she did so, a rogue gust of wind caught her hat, sending it up in the air and right over the wall. Hastily pinned curls tumbled down over her shoulders. Immediately there were howls of derision and vulgar words shouted from down below. Red-faced, Meren hurried to get out of sight, but angrily Lothíriel went to the wall. How could men be so vile! And Meren with a child in her arms! As she looked, wanting desperately to hurl insults back— she’d learnt some good ones from her brothers – one of the men, a revolting looking specimen with huge ear-rings and a straggly beard, ran forward. Thrusting out his hips he pulled down his trousers, exposing a huge, engorged member. Yelling obscenities, threatening all the women in the city, he grasped it with one hand and waved it from side to side.
Something snapped! Rage filled her mind and swept away all restraint. With no further thought Lothíriel hurled the spear. The heavy weapon fell short by a few feet, but by then she had nocked an arrow to her bow. The terrified man scrabbled to get his trousers back up, whilst taking a dive to the side, but the arrow took him through the neck. The other mercenaries scrambled to their feet, shouting curses. Damn them! She wanted them right out of here. They’d rue the day they tangled with Dol Amroth! Her second arrow hit a man right in his chest. In the resulting panic she didn’t see where the next struck, but one of them fell, trampled under many feet in the rush to get out of range. The bow twanged again and again, until she was pulled roughly away.
“Let me go!” She tried to shake off his arm, not wanting to stop. She’d go on and on until…
“No Princess! Heaven knows, I’ve wanted to do it myself. Worse than animals they are. But Lord Sergion will be mad.”
To be continued.
List of Original Characters mentioned or appearing in this chapter:
Umar - Prince of Harad. Device – the Black Serpent on Scarlet. Obsessed with Lothíriel.
Princess Meren - Elphir’s wife. Rescued by him from Corsairs to whom she refused to give away the hiding place of her brother’s children in spite of being assaulted.
Sergion - Friend of Prince Imrahil’s. Was a Commander of Swan Knights but now the Captain of Lothíriel’s Guard. Injured when an attempt was made to kidnap Lothíriel. Charged with the defence of Dol Amroth during the Ring-war.
Lady Winfrith - Wife to Lord Erkenbrand of the Westfold
Welwyn - The daughter of Winfrith and Erkenbrand
Wilheard - Warrior son of Winfrith and Erkenbrand.
Garrick- Éomer’s young squire.
Sigeweard- Chief healer in the Westfold.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.