15. Chapter 15
I peered over the edge of the Deeping Wall. The sun had sunk some hours ago and only a single torch marked where the men under Gamling's command stood guarding the gap in the dike. They would have to withdraw soon, before the enemy reached them. But stragglers of Erkenbrand's army had been coming in all day, mostly in small groups, and Gamling still hoped to see his master amongst them. For some reason my thoughts turned to Éowyn, and I wondered how she fared. I missed her. She would probably have been afire at the prospect of a fight, and her presence alone would have given me courage.
Next to me, Captain Seaxulf cleared his throat. He wanted me gone, of course. Did he fear I wanted to play the role of a Shieldmaiden? Well, he need not worry. Though I carried my bow around with me, it was only from a dim sense of reassurance and I knew I would be more hindrance than help in a battle. But I had spent the whole day in the caves helping to settle refugees and longed for some quiet.
I gave him my best smile. "Please, just let me catch a little fresh air."
"You will take shelter in the caves afterwards, my lady?"
"Very well then," he relented.
Leaning against the battlement, I gazed out into the night again. Clouds obscured the heavens, but below us in the valley baleful lights flickered everywhere. Rows of torches wound up like slow snakes from the lowlands, with brighter blazes marking wherever another family's homestead had been set alight. Every now and again one of the men standing guard on the wall would curse in a low voice, but I got the feeling that they were saving their anger for later. A hushed sense of waiting lay upon the whole fortress, as if the storm to come already vibrated on the heavy night air.
I sighed. Time to keep my promise and return to the caves. Then a sound reached my ears, and I leaned forward. Was I imagining the snorting of horses? But one of the sentries had heard it, too, and called to Seaxulf. Suddenly a shout went up from where Gamling's men guarded the dike. Though I could not make out the exact words, it sounded joyous rather than alarmed.
Seaxulf took off at a run along the wall towards the Hornburg, and after a moment's hesitation I followed him. I had borrowed a pair of loose trousers from Aeffe, of the sort the women of the Rohirrim favoured for riding, which greatly facilitated movement. Though my legs still felt faintly exposed, running was so much easier without having to drag heavy skirts along. I might get used to the feeling!
The outer courtyard was already packed when we reached it, but Seaxulf shouldered his way through the crowd and I slipped along in his wake until we reached the gate, where I hung back. A lad came running up the ramp.
"The king!" he shouted. "The king has come."
King Théoden? Impossible! That moment a snow-white horse came into sight and leading it... I could only stare in disbelief. The hair was still white, the face still lined with age, but the king strode along tall and straight, a sword at his side and wearing a heavy hauberk with the ease of long habit. And the eyes! No longer dazed and vague, but burning with purpose.
Cheers erupted all around me. "Théoden King!"
Leading their horses behind them, more riders filed into the courtyard. Suddenly I froze, impossible hope leaping within my chest. I knew that big grey stallion. The white horsetail on the rider's helmet whipped round as he turned his head abruptly. He stared straight at me, as if I had called his name. Éomer.
I wanted to run to him and fling myself into his arms, yet remembering the way we had parted, I hesitated. Éomer took a step towards me, but then his mouth thinned and I saw his hands clench on Firefoot's reins. His eyes glittered behind the slits of his vizor, their expression impossible to make out, before very deliberately he turned his back on me and moved forward to greet Seaxulf. The uncompromising set of his shoulders told me all I needed to know.
I turned round and stumbled through the crowd, half blinded by tears. He hated me! If I explained to him what had happened in Edoras, would he believe me? What if he never forgave me? I bumped into somebody and muttered an apology.
"Lothíriel!" Aeffe grabbed my arm. "Did you see him?"
Sunken in my private misery, I just nodded.
"He's so handsome!" That was Leofe.
Red-hot rage surged through me. How dare she! If I caught one of them so much as looking at-
"Do you think he has pointed ears?" Aeffe asked.
"What?" I exclaimed. Had they lost hold of their senses? "Of course not. His ears are perfectly normal."
"Are you sure?" Leofe interjected. "I thought all Elves had pointed ears."
"Elves? What are you talking about?"
Aeffe stared at me. "The Elf who rode in with King Théoden. Didn't you see him?"
That got my attention. "The king had an Elf with him? A real Elf?"
Leofe rolled her eyes. "Really Lothíriel, I think you are tired and need a rest. How could you overlook him? I've never seen any being as handsome as him. Hair like finest silk, and the way he moves!"
"As if he were dancing," Aeffe added dreamily. "Somebody said his best friend is a Dwarf, which seems strange."
A Dwarf! "Anything else I've missed?" I asked weakly.
"Well, apparently the tall, dark haired man who came with them is the Heir of Elendil," Leofe said. "Lord Aragorn is his name, and he bears the Sword that was Broken..."
An Elf, a Dwarf and the Heir of Elendil? Right! I felt as if I had stepped into an old tale from one of my books. Maybe I would wake up in the morning and find I had dreamt everything. If it meant I had also dreamt Éomer's rejection of me, I would not mind.
I shook my head, trying to clear it. "You will have to tell me more later. If you'll excuse me now, I'm tired."
Nodding to them, I moved towards the entrance of the keep, craving the seclusion of my room. Warriors rushed by, shouting orders, but everything seemed removed from me, as if I walked in a dream. However, just as I reached the door, I found myself hailed again.
"Lady Lothíriel, wait!"
I turned round. Aethelstan! The healer looked tired and was leading two packhorses behind him.
"Master Aethelstan! What are you doing here?" I hugged him.
He broke into a smile, some of the lines of weariness vanishing from his face. "Following my king." He squeezed my shoulders. "It's good to see you, child. I was worried about you." Looking me up and down searchingly, he frowned. "You left so suddenly and never came to say goodbye."
I dropped my eyes. "Yes, I know. I'm sorry."
"Never mind." He squeezed my shoulders. "Lothíriel, I'm afraid I haven't got much time and I need your help."
For a while I had forgotten the enemy coming for us, but now I suddenly remembered the battle almost upon us. "I am supposed to go to the caves, how can I help?"
"The Marshal has told me to set up a temporary infirmary in the space behind the Deeping Wall, but I will have to send those who are gravely wounded somewhere safer and need you to look after them."
The gravely wounded. The dying? "But I have so little training," I stammered. "Can't the other healers do it?"
Aethelstan shook his head. "I will need their assistance here. Even Master Herewald's." He caught my gaze. "I'm sorry, but I see no other way. Will you help?"
How could I refuse to aid those who risked their lives for me? "Yes, of course," I agreed. I would manage somehow.
"Good." He took my arm and drew me along. "I've brought supplies from Edoras and you may have part of them. Can you set up a shelter in the caves?"
My mind already filling with plans, I had to dodge a company of riders taking their horses further down towards the Narrows. Hooves clattered across the cobbles and shouts rang in the air. A lad carrying a basket with arrows stumbled into Aethelstan and calling a breathless apology ran on towards the stairs leading down onto the Deeping Wall.
"This way," I said, pulling the healer towards the rear gate of the courtyard. Taking his packhorses by the leading rope, he followed me down the ramp there. The area between the wall and the foot of the cliff thronged with riders hurrying to take their assigned places for the defence of the fortress, their faces grim and set. I looked up to the battlement and faltered. In the light of the torches there, two men stood marked out by their height as they conferred with various captains. One had to be the northern lord who claimed to be the Heir of Elendil, for he had the colouring of Gondor, but my eyes were drawn to the other. White horsetail on his helmet, blond hair falling down his back, that decisive way of nodding his head...
What if I never saw him again? He would be in the thick of the fighting, I knew, leading his men by example. Suddenly the image from my nightmare rushed into my mind, of Éomer lying lifeless on a battlefield. And I had never kissed him.
"Lothíriel?" Aethelstan tugged on my arm. "What is the matter? We haven't got much time, you know. I want to unload this, and then I have to return."
I swallowed. "I'm coming." Éomer held all our defence in his hands, the last thing he needed was me rushing up to him, pestering him for comfort.
We threaded our way along the path leading up the Narrows towards the entrance of the caves. The cliffs reared up steeply on both sides, and the Deeping Stream frothed in its bed by our left. Where it emerged at the foot of the Thrihyrne, my ancestors had improved upon the work of nature by fortifying the already narrow opening of the caves and fitting two massive oak doors reinforced with iron. They were set deep inside the rock and a culvert similar to the one underneath the Deeping Wall channelled the stream away from the road.
From here a steep tunnel lead up into the first and largest of the caverns. Though the river had carved out all these caves over the millennia, it had since dropped its level and the floor was dry and sandy. Torches burnt everywhere, but still the ceiling was lost in shadow. As soon as we entered, I saw Aeffe and Leofe directing the stream of people coming and going. Out of all of us, they knew the layout of the caverns best, for they had played here as children. I had been amazed at how much room there was; the Rohirrim could have housed a whole army in them - as they were very nearly doing now.
Carefully I stepped over a trail of horse droppings and went to talk to the twins. Thinking that Erkenbrand's men would have to retreat to the caves as well, we had settled most of the refugees and their animals further in, trying to keep the entrance free. However, it would be a good place to set up an infirmary for the wounded.
Aeffe sent some lads to fetch pallets and then helped us unload part of Aethelstan's supplies. Apparently he'd had everything ready to ride west for several days, only waiting for orders from the king.
"Master Aethelstan, what happened to Théoden King?" Aeffe asked. "Is it true it was Gandalf who healed him?"
Mithrandir involved! Another bit of gossip I hadn't heard yet.
Handing me a pot of comfrey ointment, wrapped round with straw for the journey, the healer nodded. "He arrived at Edoras yesterday morning, together with his three companions. I don't know how he did it, but he brought the king back to his old self. Some say he broke a spell laid on Théoden by Wormtongue, for the councillor was chased away within the hour."
The pot started to slide from my nerveless hands, but I managed to catch it at the last moment. "Wormtongue gone!" I exclaimed.
"Do be careful!" Aethelstan exhorted me. He heaved a basket filled with tightly rolled bandages off one of the horses and placed it on the floor. "Yes, Gríma showed his true colours and has joined Saruman's army. Everything happened very quickly after that, the women were sent to Dunharrow under Éowyn's command, and Gandalf convinced the king to take all his men and ride west. "
"And what about Marshal Éomer?" Aeffe asked. "Beorngar told us the king had him arrested for breaking the peace of the hall."
"Freeing him was Théoden's first order," the healer answered. He scratched his head. "Now where have I put the poppy syrup? Ah yes!" He passed me a leather flask. "This is full strength, use it sparingly."
I accepted it reflexively, my mind still coming to terms with the fact that Wormtongue could no longer threaten me. I was free of him!
Aethelstan nodded at Aeffe. "What is more, the king proclaimed Lord Éomer his heir outside the doors of Meduseld."
I dropped the flask.
"Lothíriel!" Aethelstan and Aeffe both exclaimed.
Fortunately the flask, being made from leather, had survived the fall. With an apology I bent to pick it up. Aethelstan told me to sit down and have a rest while he unloaded the rest of the supplies, an order I gratefully obeyed. The king's heir! It did not need much acumen to figure out that Éomer had just become a much more suitable match, one even my uncle Denethor would approve of. I shivered and hugged myself. Fate seemed to take a very personal interest in my affairs all of a sudden.
Another, most unwelcome thought entered my mind. I had given Éomer every reason to believe that I intended to marry Prince Théodred solely in order to become Queen of Rohan. If I now tried to mend relations with him, would he think it was only because of his new rank? With Wormtongue gone, I had no way of proving the truth of my allegations. Éomer would have to simply choose to believe me. Or not.
I started, and became aware of Aethelstan peering at me anxiously. "Yes?" I asked.
"I said that I will have to go now," the healer said patiently. "Listen Lothíriel, I know that I am asking a lot of you and these are anxious times, but I need your help. Can I rely on you to get everything ready here in time?"
I pushed all consideration of my personal problems from my mind and got up. "Of course, Master Aethelstan. I promise."
He patted my shoulder. "Thank you. I'm sorry that I have to leave you here all on your own, but I cannot spare anybody else."
"We will cope."
A last hug and he was gone. As I gazed at his retreating figure, I wondered if I would ever see him again. He wasn't young anymore; if the orcs broke through he would not stand much chance in a fight. Besides, instead of defending himself, he would probably try to save his patients. I shook my head. I would not think of that. We would not be defeated!
With the twins' help, I directed the lads bringing the pallets to lay them in neat rows along one side of the cave, then I did a quick inventory of the supplies Aethelstan had left me. Once that was done, I went looking for Ceolwen to recruit more assistance.
I found her in the next cave, organizing the distribution of the refugees and their livestock. This cavern had huge columns of limestone rising from the floor and everywhere small groups of women with their children sat huddled against them. Many of them had their belongings piled up besides them, baskets filled with kitchen implements, bundles of clothes and even rolled up tapestries. Large panniers held chickens, ducks and geese. We'd had to house the larger animals such as pigs and cows in separate caves and also had some of them slaughtered. Necessary to keep the peace, but hard on the people who lost part of their livelihood, although few complained. I had expected a sense of imminent panic, yet the atmosphere amongst the women was tense and determined as they talked in low voices amongst themselves. Several of them were whetting kitchen knives and one had a spear leaning against the wall beside her. They matched their men well; if you could win the battle by sheer courage, there would be no doubt as to the victor.
Ceolwen looked up with a wan smile when she spotted me, her face pale and anxious. Of course, she was worried about her husband, who might be lying dead on a battlefield! Feeling guilty for having forgotten about her concerns, I hugged her as tightly as her swollen belly permitted.
"I'm sorry, Ceolwen."
With a little hiccup she hugged me back, burying her head in my shoulder for a moment. "Erkenbrand will come. I know he will."
I held her close. "I'm sure he will."
Pulling away, Ceolwen sniffed and wiped her nose. "Have you come to join me?"
I shook my head and quickly explained the task Aethelstan had set me and that I needed more women to help look after the wounded. She nodded and sent some of the boys that she had running errands for her to pass the word. Very soon I had a motley band of volunteers, ranging in age from farmer girls younger than myself to a grandmother with long experience as a midwife.
Back in the first cavern, they all gathered round me, waiting for me to tell them what to do. Seeing two dozen pairs of eyes looking at me expectantly, I swallowed hard and had to suppress the panicky thought that I was only nineteen and had very little idea of how to cope with an influx of wounded and possibly dying warriors. But I was a daughter of Dol Amroth, and I would manage somehow.
So I started with small things, sending two of them to borrow kettles and then setting them to lighting fires and boiling water. Fortunately the caves were well ventilated through tiny fissures in the rock and had a ready supply of clean water in the Deeping stream. The biggest kettle we used for preparing a nourishing meat broth, which necessitated wringing the necks of three chickens. To my relief one of the farmer's wives took on this job.
However, very soon we had everything in readiness and it just remained to wait. The women settled down around one of the fires, warming their hands and talking in low voices. Aeffe and Leofe joined them, but I felt too restless to sit down. After pacing around the cavern a couple of times I wandered down the short tunnel to the entrance. Two men stood guard there, both of them grizzled warriors deemed too old for fighting, but if the orcs broke through, it would be their task to close and bar the great doors.
They gave me a brief nod of acknowledgment, but kept staring out into the darkness. The air was utterly still, the torches that illuminated the entrance burning steadily, except for a hiss every now and again when an unwary insect flew into the flame. Then suddenly lightning flashed across the sky. I jumped. A clap of thunder followed and with a sound like a sigh, rain started to pour down. But mixed into the rushing of rain was another noise, a deep rumble that seemed to carry through the rock. I found it comforting, for the rhythmic rise and fall of it reminded me of the sea - until I realized what it was: the far off shouting of orcs.
The battle for Helm's Deep had begun.
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.