8. Chapter 8:Gandalf.
Chapter 8: Gandalf
Inevitably, a black line appeared on the horizon first, and grew thicker and darker as it approached. At first, there had been chaos and panic in the Deep, but the army of orcs had grown steadily closer and now, all Rohan could do was wait.
Gimli glanced upward to where his women archers were hidden. He had instructed them carefully, using his experience of the only real major battle he had seen, the Five Armies. He was surprised when Legolas revealed he had also been there. But the women had struggled to hide their terror and both the dwarf and elf knew they would quail before the horror that lay ahead.
'You will find the first time you do anything it is always… more difficult,' the elf had quirked an eyebrow and grinned at them knowingly. 'It is no different in battle. The first time you see the enemy, you will feel your stomach overturn and your heart halt in your breast. But that will pass.'
Gimli looked at his friend. All the doubt, the restlessness had gone. He stood taller than any, strong. With long pale hair lifted by the slight breeze, he seemed like a hero from a distant time, and with a slight shock, Gimli realised that he had no idea how old Legolas was, or which battles he had seen. For all he knew, the elf could have been at Dagorland.
Legolas had shifted to hold his bow, stringing it lightly. The women followed. 'The main thing is not to shoot too early. Remember those arrows cannot be recovered. Make every one count.' Gimli glanced at the anxious faces before him, thinking it would do no good anyway; if the men fell, they too would fall. 'And do not shoot the dwarf,' the elf was grinning at them like fellow warriors. 'He might be useful.'
The small ripple of laughter broke the tension as Gimli was sure he intended. Faces relaxed a little for now. But Gimli hoped they had remembered the drill – with so many orcs it would be impossible not to kill. But they had to wait until they were close enough and Legolas had told them, only when the enemy were at the wall should they shoot. And to shoot over the heads of their own folk. Gimli and Legolas had agreed that this would be their only strategy – for they both knew that after the immediate offensive, all strategy was lost and battle was chaotic. Kill or be killed.
X x x
By nightfall, the black line was distinguishable. Huge Uruks and orcs lumbered towards the Deep. Trolls pulled enormous siege machines and began ponderously setting them up just beyond the range of arrow.
Eomer now stood among the men and boys of Rohan upon the Deeping Wall, and was appalled at the sheer numbers just beyond their reach, the sheer unimaginable scale of Saruman's army. Their hate and the utter desire for destruction filled the air and suddenly he knew he could not hope to win this. Should they have surrendered to Saruman, at least to protect that which he loved, rather than see the utter destruction of all he cared for? The hordes and hordes came relentlessly on and he knew they had no hope. So instead, he focused on the sturdy solid dwarf at his side, as well as the Heir of Isildur, a figure stepped out of legends to be here with him at the end. And on Aragorn's other side, was Legolas.
Eomer had avoided the elf since that last time in the cell. But he had not forgotten it. He felt the pressure on his lips still, but war was upon them and there was no more time. He wished he had made time, for this day might be his last and he wished he had taken his chance. Still, no good could come of that now, so instead, he had made a point of finding Legolas, knowing he would stand with Aragorn and wishing to do so himself. He had nodded courteously to both the man and dwarf and then thrust his hand towards the elf, seizing his forearm in the way of his people. He had looked deeply into his eyes, tentative but still searching. Legolas had looked back, and Eomer had felt strangely disorientated, as though he had tipped slightly from his horse but not fallen. There was no time to ask so instead he had gripped the strong archer's arm firmly and said 'If I die this day, it will be by your side.'
The elf had closed his eyes briefly, as if it hurt, but then smiled, impossibly gentle. 'That would be to my honour, my lord.'
But there was no time for anymore for the dark edge of the orc army approached now, within plain mortal view. They had to hold their nerves and their hearts steady before the slowly approaching tide.
x x x
It was now past midnight. The sky was utterly dark and the stillness of the heavy air foreboded storm. Suddenly the clouds were seared by a blinding flash. Branched lightning smote down on the eastwards hills. For a startling moment, the watchers on the walls saw all the space between them and the Dike lit with white light; it was crawling and boiling with black shapes, some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields. Hundreds and hundreds were pouring over the Dike and through the breach. The dark tide flowed up to the walls from cliff to cliff. Thunder rolled in the valley. Rain came lashing down. (1) It had begun.
Arrows swished overhead from both sides and Eomer glanced towards the archers where Legolas now stood. His hair gleamed in the rain and lightning, and arrows shot from his bow like a hailstorm. Boys scurried to and fro amongst the archers gleaning arrows with which they kept quivers full. Rain on Eomer's face, drenched his skin and hair slicked against his skull but his blood sang. Ladders had been thrown against the Deeping Wall and even now, orcs clambered over the broken battlements. Huge rocks launched from siege machines crumbled the stone below and now was his time. He was sick of waiting; it was the time for swords and blades. If this was to be their last stand, then so be it.
'Come!' said Aragorn, 'This is the hour when we draw swords together!'
Eomer swept his sword from its sheath and raised it up high. Lightning caught the blade and it blazed silver. He looked at Aragorn and bared his teeth. Aragorn grinned back. There was the roar of orc voices and the swish of arrows overhead. Steel rang below as blades fought and men and orcs struggled.
'Guthwine!' cried Eomer, 'Guthwine for the Mark!'
'Anduril!' cried Aragorn, 'Anduril for the Dunadain!' (1)
They charged along the wall and leaped into the fray and lightning caught the gleam of both blades already black with blood and singing in battle. Arrows soared over Eomer's head, and their battle cry was joined by other voices fell and fair.
x x x
The arrows and oil served well. Indeed, Théoden was puzzled briefly in the heat of the battle, to know how so few archers were able to produce so many arrows and so many orcs slain, but he had little time for wonder for the sheer numbers overwhelmed them. His sword rang in the battle, for orcs had quickly scaled the heights and poured over the broken walls. Hour upon hour, desperately, the slog of battle tired his bones. 'Would it were day,' he repeated to himself over and over.
When Théoden finally ordered the retreat into the citadel itself, he would not hang his head. Even knowing that he would see the last of the Rohirrim fall and that his memory would be wiped from the land and all he held dear would be enslaved or slaughtered, he would not succumb to despair. He saw the man, Aragorn, and was saddened for him, that the Heir of Isildur should die without achieving his destiny. And that Legolas, who had brought him back out of that land of dream and nightmare, should perish with him far from home. Of Eomer there was no news; he and the dwarf had last been seen just before the Orthanc fire destroyed the wall. He hoped Eomer had gathered together as many men as possible, and even now they were defending themselves in the caves below. But he had no time left.
He summoned Eowyn to the chamber and wondered that she was dirty and dishevelled, with a long scratch running down one arm. She looked like his warriors, with that fey battle light in her eyes, but he drew her to him.
'It will end soon,' he told her, 'and you must lead our people from this place if you can. The mountains are full of caves and tunnels. You must find a place to hide and then, if all else fails, your heart must not…. Do not let our people be enslaved.' And they both wept.
The night bled away. The heavy cloud and rain did not abate, it seemed some devilry drove it against the Men of Rohan, for the wind drove the rain against their arrows and fanned the flames below. The world seemed on fire to Théoden as he looked out with Aragorn from the ruined walls.
Eomer was deep in slaughter, the crash of metal on metal, the din of shouting, grunting, swearing. Battle was loud, a hellish din, and confusing. Strategy only held for the first few hours if you were lucky, and this had been going on and on, through this endless night and into the long slogging hours before dawn when men were at their most tired. The night was tinged with red now but these orcs did not fear or cringe in daylight- the battle fever overtook them and their yellow eyes glinted with madness and depravity. He hacked gracelessly, not caring how, just killing as many of the heavy, twisted abominations as he could. Just mindless repetition of cut and thrust, keeping wits about you and remembering to keep looking around you, above, behind, below. No way of knowing where your enemy might come from.
He caught sight of Legolas then. Surrounded by orcs that seemed bent on his destruction. The hate gleamed in their eyes more strongly, and they seemed to gather in that small space around the elf – and yet he held them back. All Eomer could see was a glint of pale hair in the lightning and the flash of the elf's blade, coming up black with blood and flashing down again. The elf whirled and struck again, this time, slicing through the face of an orc. It screamed and fell against its fellows. But as fast as he was, the orcs kept pressing forwards, their horrible voices loud in anticipation.
Eomer hacked his way towards Legolas, his sword plunged in deeply and he pulled it from the belly of an Uruk. The flesh sucked the blade, and the orc fell against him. He pushed it off with a grimace. He could see Legolas now hard pressed by some twisted creature, some half man half orc. Its scimitar raised and struck against the shining elven blade. It drew back, arm raised again, when suddenly the elf stopped. Just stopped dead, he turned around, eyes unseeing. The press of orcs around fell back slightly, drew back, ready for the final plunge. Eomer threw himself forwards, screaming his battle cry and for a moment, the gang of orcs shifted and turned towards him.
Then Eomer felt the air stir and the wind get up. It whipped Legolas' long pale hair around him, and he whirled around, searching the mountains- his eyes wide. The orc's scimitar flashed once and Eomer lunged forward, Guthwine held out desperately before him. The blades clashed tremendously and the juddering blow sent tremors up Eomer's arm, almost rattling his teeth. He plunged the sword deep into the orc's belly and shouted 'Watch yourself, Legolas.' He threw up his shield arm against the next blow and pulled his sword from the belly of the ugly, twisted thing, its mouth gaping and its eyes already glazed.
'Legolas!' Eomer seized the elf's arm and shook him.
'Did you hear it?' the elf's eyes were shining, incredulous. '…like the sound of a great bell….the song has changed…' He grasped at Eomer's shield arm.
'All I can hear is the clamour for your blood. Awaken from this dream or you will waken no more!' He shook his arm free and blocked a huge blade that seemed to come from nowhere.
Eomer swung upwards and blocked with his shield the blow that came plunging down on them. He was aware that Legolas had taken a deep breath and then, at the top of his voice, sang a snatch of some elvish battle song with violent joy. The notes were fierce and thrilling. Eomer had no idea what any of it meant- the words meant nothing to him, but the sound filled him with a glee, a battle lust and fervour that he had never felt before. It spoke to him of thundering hooves and fierce battle; of standing knee-deep in slaughter and reveling in the destruction, and of glorious charges, and violent, brutal killing, and smearing the blood of his enemies on his shield.
'Guthwine! Forth Eorlingas!' he shouted renewed.
And a storm of voices joined him. 'For the Mark! For the Mark!'
His eyes wide with the fever of battle, Eomer looked at the elf briefly before turning back to slash at the orcs surrounding them. Later, it frightened Eomer, that the crazed lust for battle in the elf's eyes had been reflected in the eyes of orcs and that the song made him merciless, for Eomer had forgotten his own humanity.
x x x
Aragorn glanced quickly over his shoulder looking for Eomer, but the battle was too thick where he was and he could see only Rohirrim, some on horseback, some on foot, and orcs, struggling together. As he looked, an orc raised its scimitar above a small, slight warrior, gold hair glinted in the sudden sun. Aragorn gasped as swifter than speed, a knife embedded itself in the orc's thick neck. Not enough to stop the scimitar from falling, but it deflected easily off the youth's shield. He turned and saw Legolas standing nearby, hand raised from throwing the knife. He was staring at the youth and breathing hard.
Aragorn knew it had been Legolas singing that fierce battle song but he had not realised that this friend was so close by. Once, in Mirkwood, he had witnessed the wild ferocity and glee in the eyes of elven warriors as they devastated an orc camp without mercy. He who had been raised by Noldor, had believed then all the tales; more dangerous, less wise.
Aragorn turned his gaze back to the youth, who was now slashing heavily, tiredly at anything he could reach. Aragorn knew the lad would fall soon; he was too tired - unless he could get to the youth first. So he leapt towards him and pulled him away to a space between skirmishes. The mud was churned and slippery beneath them for it had rained all night and battle here had been fierce. The youth's face was familiar, though smudged with mud and there was a scratch down one pale cheek.
'Go back now,' he shouted above the din. 'You are tired. You will be injured and then die unless you retire. Come back when you have rested.'
The youth glared at him mutinously, 'You would have me abandon my people here and leave them to die?' Aragorn sighed. The pitch of the voice betrayed his youth – this was a mere boy.
Then another voice joined them. Legolas. He had a wild, fey look in his eye and there was blood on his shoulder that spread down his arm, but his voice was calm.
'You make mistakes when you are tired.' He told the youth. 'We will need you later, when you have rested a while.' he gestured at the battle 'No one is going anywhere just yet.' The youth suddenly collapsed slightly against his arm. 'We will need you to defend the children should they get through.' The elf added, sensing his small victory.
Then he pulled the youth towards him abruptly and lifted his chin towards him. Aragorn could not see the youth's face but Legolas looked furious, as though some suspicion had been confirmed, and he suddenly grasped the boy's arm. He pushed him away and Aragorn watched bemused as the elf marched the boy off, scolding him all the while and pushed him out of the edges of battle. There was a brief pause in the immediate skirmishes around him and Aragorn took a moment to breathe and look about him, before plunging back into the fray.
Legolas watched the youth stumble out of harm's way and edge along the wall to the citadel. He lost sight of the slender figure then and sighing, turned back. He looked out over the battle to find Aragorn; the man had looked exhausted himself and Legolas worried that he might take some hurt. Now that Frodo and Sam were beyond his help, the quest had changed; it was now Legolas' duty to see Aragorn safely to Minas Tirith, and to fight at his side whilst he still had breath.
Ahead of him, two Uruks attacked a Rohan warrior. He was beaten back and now slowly giving way. Legolas leaped towards him and swung his blade into one of the Uruks. It turned as he did, raising its own crude steel blade. Legolas was dimly aware of the terror in its eyes as it fell, and was briefly puzzled. He sensed a change, a rippling through the orc army, an unease and sudden panic. He could see nothing but the crush of orcs around him, some turning to hack at him in turn, or at another Rohan warrior. It was all too confusing, but he knew the Song had already changed, so he just kept on hacking and thrusting between armour into heavy flesh.
Spattered with blood and gore, grunting with effort now as his own body began to demand rest, he pushed himself onwards. It seemed too easy now, orcs giving way to him, pushing at each other almost to get away. The elf was wary. Never underestimate orcs, he had learned; their hatred of the First Born overwhelmed them yet their lust did not always make them careless, sometimes they became more cunning. He would not fall into a trap, so he pulled himself back a little and stood breathing heavily to watch as the orcs seemed to try to scramble away from him. It was not he they were running from though. Dawn was breaking over the mountains and its first light crept over the blackened, charred land.
At that moment, sudden and terrible, from the tower above, the great horn of Helm rang out. (1) The echo of many horns rang across the battle field. Théoden was riding out.
'Helm! Helm is arisen and comes back to war. Helm for Théoden King!' Again, the great horn rang out and its echoes rang around the valley and across the battle field. The battle cry was taken up with renewed vigour. Then it was joined by another cry that Legolas did not recognise. 'Erkenbrand! Erkenbrand!'
He looked up. There, from the mountains came loud battle cries and the clash of swords on shields. Hundreds of horns joined the great horn of Helm and a tall man with a red shield strode into the fray, slashing and stabbing any that were in his path. This must be Erkenbrand, thought Legolas. He was followed by a thousand warriors, all shouting and eager, fresh for battle. Legolas turned and threw himself against a huge Uruk, its ugly mouth twisted into a sneer as the elf's blade plunged into its heart and his sword ripped through its belly. He realised there was less resistance, but more noise. It had changed. Orcs were not shouting their battle cry now. The shouting was more chaotic, more panicked. He felt a thrill run through him and suddenly a smell of lush green forests, leaves rotting in the rain, and his body thrummed with excitement. Orcs were running now, away, and then back, hither and thither. It seemed they were in disarray.
He became aware, slowly, of a deep, sonorous call, a song that wound its way slowly, slowly, like an ancient horn, through the ranks of fighting men and orcs, to the elf. He paused briefly in the slaughter, to listen. It made him feel young again, such as he had not felt since he set out with the children of the Fellowship, and his heart rejoiced at the vigour and depth of the voice, strong enough to drown out that other Voice that spoke of despair and destruction. Strong enough to drown the Voice of Saruman and all the evil of Orthanc. Legolas dodged a flailing arm and came face to face with a begrimed and weary Aragorn.
'What is happening?' he shouted. The man shook his head, then turned to lunge at a black - armoured orc that raised his sword to clash against Anduril. Legolas sliced in between the neck and shoulder armour and the orc fell.
'Something has changed.' He shouted again to the Man 'Something strange is happening. Is Gandalf here?'
'Yes,' shouted the man and he waved towards the Mountains rising above them. 'He came...' Aragorn stopped to slice through the face of an approaching orc, 'over the mountains I think, or maybe from Fangorn.' Two Rohirrim came between them then and that was the last he saw of Aragorn for a while.
'Gandalf!' No longer unsure. The song reverberated through every nerve and tingled in his fingertips. 'Gandalf!!' he cried and again, he thrust into the mass of orcs, now struggling and fighting, not to kill, but to get away. But more, the dark edge of the army had changed and Legolas could see, could smell the green and the lushness of forests and glades. His blood sang in triumph for Arda would be victorious and he felt his bones and muscle and sinew sing out.
And then, almost suddenly, it all seemed over. The orcs had fled or lay dead or dying on the field. Quickly he despatched those not yet dead, emotionless. One Uruk, a dreadful wound pumping its black blood out and soaking the ground, yellow eyes slitted and watching him, bared its fanged teeth in a horrid grimace of pain. 'You think you have won, elf,' it panted, glancing down at the vambraces etched with Oropher's sigil. The Uruk sneered. 'You should see Mirkwood.' It gurgled as the elf, not pausing, cut its throat.
He wiped his blade on the tunic of the beast and looked around. He would not think on what the beast had said.
The devastation was dreadful to behold. Already, carrion alit upon the corpses of orc, man and horse. Indiscriminate, black birds flocked, like black cinders in the sky. The battle had raged through the night and into the day, it was almost evening again. Small fires were lit over the battle field and he could hear the beginning of the sound of singing, a dirge, a lament for the fallen men of Rohan. He felt unutterably alone. Looking about, he saw other shapes, men, moving through the falling evening, stooping to pick up a sword or a token here or there, or longer, to cradle the injured or dead.
Battle fever seeped from his bones and he made his way towards the citadel. He stopped twice, once, to pull an injured man to his feet and help him to one of the fires, where the healers were setting up, and once, to hold a dying man while he gasped his last breath; he then closed his eyes. He felt the despair seep into his bones again but struggled against it. We won, he told himself, we live…. He did not want to think who lived; it was enough for now that Saruman had not won.
Wearily he made his way towards the mountain hold. It came to him then that he needed to know who lived. He needed to hold someone, to know he was alive, to know if what he felt was real. He was suddenly amongst the throng of Rohirrim, all making their way up to the Hornburg. He gave his arm to a limping soldier, a rider whose horse had clearly been killed under him. The man turned his head away at first, and then when Legolas had seized his arm and drawn it over his shoulder, he had slumped slightly and whispered thanks. He left him at one of the many camp fires that had sprung up, to draw the survivors and to treat the injured.
He leaned over the Deeping Wall, staring at the great gash made in its side by Orthanc Fire. He drew a breath, seeing again the fiery explosion, feeling the heat and the blast. He gazed beyond, to the scattered campfires dotting the battle field below, and then, he paused. Where he had expected to see the open steppe, there was forest. He leaned forwards, listening, stretching out his senses… 'My eyes deceive me.' muttered the elf as he shaded his eyes with his long hand. 'Ah Elbereth. That was the change in the Song,' he whispered.
A forest of great trees. Silent. Utterly still. Impenetrable darkness beneath its eaves. Like a silent, frozen army their winter-bare branches tangled, roots buried in the battle-churned mud and grass. Woodelf that he was, Legolas Thranduillion stopped, amazed and lost in the resonant song that had caught him before, and now sang to his bones and blood, calling him to wander amongst their huge ancient boughs, to rest in their long limbs, and let them tangle leaves in his hair.Voices broke though his reverie. A breath escaped him like a long pent up sigh and he turned to see a tall, old man in white robes striding up the steps towards the citadel. With him, were Théoden, and Eomer, and Aragorn walked slightly behind.
'Gandalf.' A whisper but Gandalf spared him one brief glance, the blue eyes crinkling kindly. Then the wizard turned back to Théoden, bending to hear the king's words and nodding wisely. Legolas' heart soared but he only sat heavily down on the ground and rested his head on his arms. Everything that needed to be was put right in that one instant. He knew it was not his time with Gandalf though, and sat instead, watching the wizard greet the kings of men who had returned victorious.
x x x
Gimli had already checked on his apprentice lads and been angry that some had not survived. But the four he had worked with most closely were all hale, though he saw the loss in their eyes and the bleeding away of innocence. It could not have been any other way. His archers were however, all unscathed and he rejoiced at the confident and assured way they now organised the caring for the injured. No longer warriors, they were wives and sisters and mothers again, and many grieved.
He hurried away from the scene, needing to find something bright in all that destruction. He searched for Legolas, and found him, grinning like an idiot child at the old wizard, who was clearly too busy to spare a thought for the likes of them, thought Gimli. But then the wizard glanced across at him, and Gimli laughed and Legolas joined him. Now they were both idiots, he thought, but he didn't care, for the elf had laughed too and it was good that they were alive.
'So…?' the dwarf puffed out his chest, ready for his victory. Legolas looked up. Gimli laughed to see the elation in the elf's eyes, brimming with childish glee. For a minute he thought the elf would pull him into a bear hug and swing him round and round. But the absurd fancy passed as quickly as it had come, and Gimli was glad for it would be undignified.
'So?' Legolas said with schooled calm. Gimli narrowed his eyes. The elf knew exactly what he was asking and he wasn't having any games.
'How many?' he demanded.
'How many yourself first?'
'Forty two?' Legolas raised an eyebrow playfully.
'Forty-two,' repeated the dwarf.
'Argh! Confound it Legolas. Come now, how many?'
'Less than you I think. I saw you, a bear wielding your axe and cutting through orcs like so much barley!'Gimli knew this was not so for Legolas had easily killed over a hundred orcs, but somehow he knew the elf would not count those he had killed with his arrows. He would argue that it was easy to kill with bolts. (2) Then generously the elf said, 'And you have bested me by one.'
Yet Legolas's arrows had been a hail of death to Saruman's army, and Gimli had taken no small comfort from having the elf at his back, at least until they had left the Wall and leapt into the battle. Nonetheless he accepted the gift as it was meant and smiled into his beard.
'And our plan was also a success,' he added, and the elf laughed merrily – Gimli had almost forgotten the sound and he chuckled himself to hear it. Immediately though, he sobered when he saw that Legolas' eyes had turned north-eastwards, homewards.
'I know,' he said softly, laying a hand on the elf's arm 'I worry for my folk too… but today, my friend. Let us enjoy a victory without rancour or grief.'
The dwarf was right, thought Legolas, and he steeled himself against the Uruk's last words; only a fool would believe Mirkwood was yet unscathed. The Nazgul would have made Thranduil their first target, he was sure. He fortified himself with Gandalf's return and the certainty now that Merry and Pippin were safe… for Frodo and Sam were in the hands of the Valar. He smiled and offered up a quick prayer to Elbereth to give them good luck and the fortune to keep them safe. Then he followed Gimli into the citadel.
(1) Extracts from TTT Helm's Deep.
(2)I know, I know- it was 42, but really! This a bit of elf worship in case you hadn't guessed!
The bit about the Mirkwood elves' battle song is a small tribute to Jasta's wonderful Saeros, who is just about as otherworldly and truly elvish in the Avari sense that any elf could be.
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