32. Risk and Revenge
Risk and Revenge
The combined company of Riders and Rangers measured nearly a thousand. They rode until well after nightfall, and soon after the first light of the next day they were afield again. To the north and west the Mountains of Mist seemed edged about with shadow that flowed as a stream of darkness from the hidden vales. Eastward, towering clouds built ever upward, dimming the morning and marching slowly toward them.
Gimli, riding Elvish-style with Aragorn once more, peered to his right at the gathering storm.
"Do storms blow upon this land from East or West?" he asked.
"In times past, our weather swept mostly from the West, from the far-off Sea," Harmund replied from where he rode nearby, to Aragorn's left and just behind the Prince. "But since the Dark Lord's rising in the East, more oft than not great storms come to us from thence—lashing, bitter rains, and fierce winds. Many cottages and fields have been set ablaze when the winds are in the East, bringing black clouds bearing uncommonly dangerous lightning."
Gimli thought of his own land, and the strange, ill-omened weather they had noticed of late. There, too, in Dale and Erebor, the storms driven by a South wind were the worst, and often seemed to carry with them a scent of acrid smoke and the grey stain of ash. And it is to the source of that smoke and ash that our friends journey, far away. He frowned. I wonder where they might be? How far have they gone? Are they safe? He scowled eastward again. For a moment, his heart thudded and his throat went dry. Perhaps this storm is a sign… If the Bearer has already fallen, and the Dark One regained what He lost…
Momentarily distracted, the Dwarf swayed in his seat behind Aragorn. His eyes flew open as he felt himself sliding. No stirrups, again…! He clutched hard at the man's waist.
"Ho, Gimli," Aragorn said as he glanced over his shoulder. "Pay heed, my friend. Shadowfax shall do his best to keep you on his back, but he cannot catch you if you throw yourself off…"
The Dwarf heard light Elvish laughter behind him as the sons of Elrond witnessed his near-tumble. He felt his face heat up beneath his beard. By Mahal, if I had fallen in front of those two...! They are more arrogant, if such a thing is possible, than that damned Mirkwood Elf, wherever he might be… He cleared his throat.
"My apologies, Aragorn," he muttered in a low voice. "All this talk of storms from the East… My mind went that direction and got me worrying, if you catch my meaning…"
"Yes," Aragorn replied softly. "I frequently find my thoughts roaming in the same manner."
"Do you think," Gimli whispered. "Do you suppose… Are they all right?"
The man paused for much longer than was comfortable for the Dwarf. Finally Aragorn sighed. "Alas, it is not for us to know," he said darkly. "And yet, I must believe that if the worst had happened, we would know it—we would feel it, in our hearts. In our very souls."
"Aye," Gimli breathed.
On they rode, and the storm gained on them. Gimli could see flickering light in the billows of black. Ahead the Misty Mountains loomed ever higher, and to their left the three joined spikes of the peak the men of Rohan called Thrihyrne glowed red in the slanting Sun of late afternoon. From out of the red sunset a lone horseman came, riding erratically. Harmund signaled, and Théodred's guard gathered before and around him protectively.
Gimli gripped the shaft of his axe, and not for the first time did he wonder how quickly he could leap from this giant beast's back and to the ground, for a proper fight. Balanced atop a long-legged animal, however magnificent he be, is no place for an axe-bearer… But he saw the grim faces of the men of Rohan relax as they recognized the Rider approaching.
"Ceorl!" Harmund called, as he jumped from his mount and went to support the man, who dropped unsteadily from the saddle. Another Rider leapt down to tend the man's horse, which was shuddering with exhaustion and spattered with gore.
Ceorl leaned heavily on Harmund's arm as he came forward to speak to the Prince.
"My Lord," he said, his breath coming in gasps. "Things have gone ill for us…" Swiftly he told of the breaking of the defensive line across the Fords the day before. Many had fallen, and enemy forces had swarmed down from Isengard after midnight on both sides of the river, scattering the survivors.
"Erkenbrand, in command upon the western bank, gathered many to him and was determined to fall back to his stronghold in Helm's Deep," the man said, and he gazed south, to Thrihyrne, beneath which lay that protected valley in the White Mountains. "The rest are slain, or scattered…"
"Grimbold?" Théodred asked. "Elfhelm?"
"I have seen neither, Lord, since the shieldwall was cleaved and driven back. When I last glimpsed him, Grimbold was still ahorse, sire, though the onslaught was too fierce… I know not what befell him… It was Erkenbrand who sent me to ride to Edoras, sire, and advise that all who remain should fall back to the havens…"
"Get this man water, food, and a fresh mount," Théodred said. He sought out Aragorn. The Prince's eyes were alight, and his fair face was stained red in the fading sunset. "What say you, friend? Should Rohan turn round and fall back to the havens of Dunharrow?" he said scornfully. He went on urgently. "Or should we ride on, and avenge our brethren fallen at the Fords?"
The Riders within hearing shouted and cheered, and many drew their swords and clanged them upon their shields. The Prince looked about, smiling, and his black war-horse snorted and tossed his head, restless to go on.
Aragorn frowned. "Prince Théodred," he said slowly. "A different and far stronger haven lies much closer. There you could join your battle-hardened Marshall, Erkenbrand, at Helm's Deep…"
Théodred's eager features fell. "Retreat?" he scoffed. "That is the course of a coward, Aragorn!"
Halbarad bristled, and Elrhoir drew in a sharp breath. But Aragorn went on in a calm, firm voice.
"You may call it thus, Prince, but I would say instead that courage must also have the wisdom to recognize reality. To ride to certain defeat…"
"Defeat is certain when the battle is not engaged!" Theodred cried. "And to fall avenging one's comrade is an honorable end…"
"So it is. But you stand not only for the Riders of the Mark, Lord, but also for her people. I speak as one who has led the fight for many years against forces that greatly overmatched my own," Aragorn said sternly. "My folk would have been destroyed to the last child long ago, Prince, had the Rangers of the North ridden out to do battle, courageously to be sure, for nothing more than vengeance." Théodred seemed about to protest, but the Dûnedan caught his eye and held it, and the Prince was silent. "A warrior may be hailed as a hero for such motives, regardless of the outcome. But the Lord of a realm must put such things in their rightful place, and weigh the needs of his people against his desire for honor or revenge. My own father was murdered; and yet, I laid aside my wish for vengeance and set my sights upon the future of my folk. You must choose, sire. Are you a warrior only, or are you the King's Heir, and ruler in his stead?"
Théodred stared at him for a long moment. Harmund stood near the Prince's stirrup, and Hama spurred his mount close. They leaned in and muttered softly together in their own tongue. At a sign from Harmund, the man Ceorl was found and brought forward again. The others saw him nod and speak, answering question after question from the Prince. Finally, Théodred straightened. He turned and gazed directly at Aragorn.
"We ride to Helm's Deep!"
Aragorn nodded, and Gimli let out a deep breath that he did not realize he'd been holding. Halbarad grunted.
"Well, I suppose that's one good reason we've come all this way in the wrong direction…"
Aragorn flashed him a brief smile; then his face grew stern. "A moment, kinsman…" He moved his heel lightly and Shadowfax trotted gracefully to where Théodred sat, plying Ceorl with a few more questions about the rout at the Fords.
"My Lord, if I may?" Aragorn leaned forward to speak to Ceorl. "How large a force was gathered at the start of the engagement?"
"Two thousand horse and as many afoot, sire…"
"Can you say how many survivors were scattered?"
Ceorl looked down. "I…I cannot say with any certainly, Lord. The Isen ran with blood, and I never saw so many dead… But living men there were, too… more than I could count…"
Aragorn frowned. "So, if even half survived, that would more than double the cavalry force you have here, Prince…" He nodded slightly, as if he had made a decision. "Théodred, if you would accompany me while I speak to my lieutenant and my kin…"
Halbarad looked up worriedly as Aragorn returned with the Prince. Gimli leaned out from behind the man's back and exchanged a glance with the Ranger. Something's up… What's Aragorn got up his sleeve this time?
"Friends, I have a proposal, one that is based entirely on logic and the need at hand. More than half the scattered forces, or more, if we are lucky, may be within a day's ride of this very spot. Yet, they know not that they should be moving with all speed to Helm's Deep. What I propose is this: that the swiftest possible messenger be sent out to search for the scattered survivors, and gather them to Helm's Deep..."
Gimli noticed a sudden shift of Halbarad's features. He looks stricken… What in Arda is Aragorn up to this time?
"No!" Halbarad whispered.
"…and as the swiftness of the messenger is determined by the swiftness of his horse," Aragorn went on, as his eyes never left those of his kinsman's. "I will go, on Shadowfax."
"You shall do no such thing!" Halbarad cried.
"Aragorn, you cannot possibly be serious!" Elrohir said heatedly.
"My friends, hear me," Aragorn said. He looked at Halbarad. "You said it yourself, Hal, just yesterday morning…" He lifted his right arm, no longer in a sling, but still stiff. "I can't see the wound, but I can smell it, and feel it." He glanced at Elladan. "Brother, if I were to wield Andúril, tonight, or tomorrow, what does the healer in you forsee?"
Elladan stared grimly at his stepbrother. "You would tear it open," he muttered.
"And Elrohir, if this wound opens again, how long would you estimate it would take until I recover full strength to wield a sword?"
"A month. Probably two," Elrohir grumbled.
"There, you see?" Aragorn said to Halbarad, who glared at him with a look of helpless anger and frustration. "I will be useless in a battle—I'll just be tempted to ruin what healing has begun in this wretched wound. I have the fastest steed and I speak Rohirric. The need is obvious. And the solution is utterly logical."
"It is a brilliant idea, my friend," Théodred said with a grin. "Once again you come to our aid. On behalf of the Mark, I cannot thank you enough" He reached out and gripped Aragorn on his left shoulder. "We will look for you with the host of the Westfold at your back!"
He turned his horse, and the men of Rohan began to form in ranks behind him. Aragorn twisted and looked over one shoulder.
"Gimli, I think it's time you rode with Halbarad again, if he'll have you…"
The Dwarf jumped down without a word. He scowled up at Aragorn.
"I don't like this, not one bit. You shouldn't be going off on your own…"
"He's right," Halbarad cried. "Can you not see reason? The risk…!"
"The risk to me is not as great as that you bear," Aragorn said quietly. "I am loathe to leave you all for the greater safety of the swift road, and yet as I cannot fight, I see no other task for myself…"
"You could come to Helm's Deep and stay out of harm's way," Elrohir said sharply. "At least then we could protect you. At least we'd have more hope you might survive…"
"Don't you see that I am attempting to ensure that any of us—Ranger, Peredhil, Dwarf, or Rider—survives the next few days? This is the last push for Rohan, my friends, and every man that can be found is desperately needed. I wish it had not come to this, not now…" He paused and took another deep breath. "Enough. I have made my decision." He held each of their eyes in turn. "I will return. Keep safe, all of you, until we meet again."
* * *
Merry perched on Quickbeam's broad shoulder as the Ents paused. They looked down from a ledge, high on a steep mountainside covered with the twisted, stunted trees that cling to life in such desolate places. Lights flickered far below, gathering in a dark valley as if a pool of fire had formed, and flashes twinkled in a great circle.
He knew he was looking down upon the Wizard's Vale: Isengard, where Gandalf had been imprisoned last summer, and where Saruman lived inside a great black Tower. But in the darkness of night, the Tower was nothing but a darker shadow amidst the other shadows, and the walls of the fortress were vague shapes marked only by the torches lit upon it. And the pool of fire, he knew, was a vast army assembling.
Earlier, between sunset and the midnight that had just passed, Merry had been terrified by a sense that the Ents had been overtaken by a murmuring, creeping bank of black fog. The fog had seemed vividly alive, and very angry. His breath had caught, and he'd had to contain his urge to scream aloud.
"Huorns," Treebeard had muttered as they halted to wait for the fog to dissipate. "They press forward… Hrmmm… Pay them no heed, my young friend, they will not harm us, or you…"
"But what are they?" Merry had whispered as he peered into the pressing shadows. He thought he could glimpse the lines of trunks and branches, as if endless trees were on the move… But that wasn't possible. Ents looked a bit like the trees they shepherded, but they weren't actually trees, nor were their charges anything at all like sheep… Or were they?
Quickbeam let out a long throaty rumble before he replied. "Huorns… well, Huorns are difficult to explain to an outsider. They might best be described as trees that are more awake than most… That have grown rather Entish, if you understand me."
"Many are quite wild and fierce," Treebeard added. "It would not do for you, youngster, to meet up with a Huorn if one of us was not near at hand. They are… hrmmm… very dangerous, very dangerous indeed…"
Merry thought at once of Old Man Willow, and the lively, muttering trees of the Withywindle Valley far away. But in the Old Forest, no matter how much the trees seemed awake, they didn't tear up their roots and move from place to place! He swallowed hard.
"You're sure they won't harm us? What are they doing, then?"
The bank of moving shades was all about them now: before, alongside, and behind. Merry lost all sight of the valley of the Isen; its torches and lanterns had been blocked out.
"They have their own errand," Quickbeam replied solemnly.
Treebeard nodded slowly as he watched the shadowy shapes. "The Huorns go to take their revenge… hrmmm… on behalf of all trees. They go to war, as we do. But it is against the Orcs of Isengard that their anger is aimed. And woe to any who encounter them first, in their current mood…"
"Indeed," Quickbeam said. "It would not do for any others now abroad to come 'tween the Huorns and their prey. It would not do at all, rhmmm…."
The sense of oppressive rage slowly passed, and with it, the thick moving shadows. The lights of Isengard reappeared below them. Merry fretted anxiously as the Huorns moved onward. He hoped with all his heart that no friends stood in the path of the encroaching darkness. Here I've been worrying about Pip, and Frodo and Sam of course… But I nearly forgot about Strider, and Legolas and Gimli! I wonder where they've got to, and if Legolas has caught up with the others yet? I hope they're not about to meet up with those Huorns…
The Ents were on the move again. Merry was amazed at how swiftly the enormous creatures could walk, even in such steep and treacherous places. They dropped down quickly and remarkly quietly. Their path brought them to a silvery stream, sparkling in the waxing Moonlight.
"The source of the Isen, hrmmm," Treebeard muttered as his many-toed feet splashed into the icy water.
"And not yet befouled by the Wizard's forges and slagheaps," Quickbeam whispered. "Perhaps these cleansing waters might be of service, eh, Eldest?"
Treebeard rumbled. "Saruman could use a good bath…"
"…and a cold one," Quickbeam chuckled.
Merry held fast to Quickbeam's shoulder as they descended beside the frothy, dancing stream.
* * *
Saruman, Grima knew, no longer allowed Orcs to enter the Tower, not since last summer, when his Uruk servants had failed in the task the White Wizard had set them to. Of course, Grima suspected that no one could have carried out that particular assignment. The Grey Wizard, upon whom Saruman had unleashed his Uruks, to force him to reveal some deep and important secret, was, in Grima's view, even more impossible than the White. The Lord of Orthanc had even joined in the ugly business himself, with no more success than the Orcs.
But Saruman never took failure well. He had to blame someone, and his wrath had fallen on the Uruks of the dungeons in particular, and on Orcs in general. When he felt the need to meet with Orc or Uruk commanders, he would descend from his study and hold court at the head of the great stairway that led to Orthanc's massive doors. Such a conference was taking place now, and Grima was late.
He'd finally extricated himself from Saruman's chilling presence and got that hot meal and warm bath he so desperately desired. He'd even found an empty bed somewhere, and fell immediately into sleep, despite the morning light streaming in the small window. But the servant he'd ordered to wake him in time for the Lord Saruman's final conference with his commanders was at best an idiot, and at worst, an impertinent trickster. Grima woke with a start. The lantern was out, and the sky outside the window was dark. Again. Another day had passed in Isengard. The fool did not wake me! It was already the following night.
And this was the night: the night that the forces of Isengard would be launched. Grima cursed, threw on his shirt and boots and dashed from the room. If Saruman doesn't kill me first, I'm going to find that servant and wring his fool neck…
He ran through the halls, approaching the entrance chamber from the north side, where, Grima knew, the lantern light was poor, and the pillars about the opening cast great shadows. The door was ajar, and Grima could see the folds of a white robe. Saruman shifted, and the fabric shimmered with an uneasy sparkle of multiple hues. The effect was more pronounced in dim light. Grima had never voiced this opinion, of course, but he didn't like the oily, rainbow effect. It made him queasy. He slowed his steps and came as quietly as he could to stand in the darkness near Saruman's left shoulder. The wizard gave no indication that he knew Grima had arrived. He went on speaking to whoever stood just outside the great entry door.
"Take care with the devices I gave you, Muzluk. Use them wisely; the supply is limited…"
A growling voice replied, but Grima could not hear what the Uruk said.
"Of course I could make more, but that would take too much time. It is devilishly tricky to manufacture," Saruman snapped. "As difficult as it is to make, it will be gone in a flash, so make certain you place it where it will have the greatest impact…"
"And once we take the Horse-Men's Citadel, what are we to do with those shelteringin the caves behind, Lord Sharkû?" The insinuation in the low, sinister voice of the Uruk made Grima's skin crawl.
Saruman sniffed. "I leave such details to you, Muzluk."
Grima stared in horror at the side of the wizard's face, for he realized that Saruman's sneer was more than half a smile, and the Uruks outside the door were laughing evilly. Bile rose in the back of his throat. All my pleas for the people of Rohan were for nothing… He is merciless…
"Have we your leave, Lord, to press on from Helm's Deep, once we are finished there?"
"Certainly," Saruman said icily. "No need to waste any time. You will find Edoras and the havens above it easier to take than the Hornburg, I imagine…"
The rough laughter outside the door sent chills down Grima's back. Without knowing it, his hand came to rest on the dagger at his belt. He gripped it tightly. His breathing was shallow.
"And the woman?" The rough voice fell. "The White Princess?"
Grima stiffened. Eowyn! That vile monster dares to speak of Eowyn!
"Certain ancient traditions apply to these situations," Saruman said dryly. "I believe the phrase is, 'to the victor goes the spoils.' Think of it as a bit of added incentive for you, Muzluk."
Grima's ears filled with a roaring sound as he staggered back into the dark recesses of the chamber. He felt his shoulders and back slam against the wall as he nearly fainted. Eowyn… He's… he's offering her to that…that… He bowed double as his heart filled with intolerable agony. No! Not that, anything but that…
The conference was apparently over. Saruman's white robes swished as he turned away from the entrance. The guards closed the door behind him. The wizard glanced at Grima cringing in the shadows.
"What are you doing back there, Worm?" he said harshly. "Come, the armies are preparing to depart. Fetch my cloak. I wish to cross to the gate and see them off—and I wouldn't want to catch a chill." He glared when Grima made no move. "What are you waiting for, you fool? Go!'
Grima flinched and began to shuffle toward the stairway door. Saruman turned his back and crossed to a table. He poured a clear golden liquid from a crystal flagon into a small glass. He raised the glass, as if in silent tribute to himself, and then slowly savored it, sip by sip.
There were but two guards, both standing just inside the doorway. As Grima passed by them, he paused.
"Get out of here, both of you," he whispered. "Right now."
The man nearest to him looked up and stared, fear written in his eyes.
"Now!" he repeated hoarsely. The men looked at one another, then without a word they hurried silently in the direction opposite where the wizard stood enjoying his liqueur.
As quietly as he could, Grima crept back toward Saruman. His mind was filled with red fire. Hatred surged through him. The despicable fiend… He must be stopped… He gripped his dagger. Steady, steady… closer… Three more steps and he would be close enough…
Saruman slammed the glass down and spun, his face a mask of rage.
"What do you think you're doing, Worm?" he said coldly.
Instantly, Grima loosened his grip on the knife at his belt. He cringed and groveled. His entire body trembled.
"M…my Lord, I…"
"What is it, Worm?"
"I thought… I meant to…" Grima's voice shook. "The night is cold, Lord… A storm comes… I wondered…"
"Well? What? Speak, you fool!"
"Wh…which cloak did you wish me to fetch, my Lord?"
Saruman sneered at him and hissed. "You idiot. You pathetic excuse for a man… I care not which cloak, just hurry!"
He turned again and picked up the flagon. He removed the crystal stopper and placed it on the table. With a mutter of frustration the great wizard began pouring the golden liquid.
Suddenly his head jerked back. He made a strange gurgle, followed by a thin wheeze. The crystal flagon slipped from his fingers and shattered on the table. Golden liqueur splashed and dribbled off the edge, onto the floor, where it mingled with the torrent of red that had suddenly appeared. The front of the wizard's robe was no longer white, nor was the subtle shimmering rainbow of many hues apparent.
The White Wizard slumped to the floor. Grima stared down in silence, waiting. The figure did not move. The pool of blood slowly spread. A minute passed. The red began to congeal.
Then Grima gasped and stumbled back as a grey mist rose from the body. It was a trick of the flickering light, surely, for the mist seemed to form into the shape of a man. The shape raised its hands and turned toward him. Grima screamed as the filmy figure reached for him.
The chamber was closed; the door was shut, and the room had no windows. Yet a Wind rose within the enclosed space. The mist wavered. Then with a sigh, ithe mist dissipated and vanished.
Grima dropped the dagger and wiped his bloody hand on his tunic. He staggered to the door, wrenched it open and fled.
As he ran, all Isengard whirled in chaos about him. Shouting men ran to and fro; torches flared. Orcs roared and wolves howled. The din did not register on his ears for several minutes. But as he came in sight of the stable just inside the gate the noise finally reached him.
Boom. Boom. Crack. The stones shook, and the unbreakable walls of the fortress of Isengard shuddered. A thin line appeared where smooth stones had stood unmarked for more than an Age. With the next thunderous boom an enormous hunk of stone fell and crashed to the ground. Horses screamed in terror. No one manned the stables; Grima quickly found his horse, and not bothering with a saddle he mounted at once and galloped toward the gate.
"What's that horrible noise?" the gate warden screamed at him as he passed into the tunnel.
"Let me through!" he shouted. "Open it! Let me through!"
The guards, accustomed to Grima carrying orders from the Lord of Orthanc, began grinding the gears that opened the iron gate. The warden appeared at his side and clutched at his ankle.
"What the hell is going on? Where is the Wizard?"
Grima laughed wildly. "The Wizard? He's back at the Tower… Go, see for yourself!"
He dug in his heels and the horse leapt forward. Hoofbeats echoed on the stones. He passed beneath the archway, under the grate.... He was through—he'd done it! He had escaped!
But Muzluk and a dozen huge Uruks rushed forward and blocked his way; the horse shied and tossed its head in fear.
"Where are you off to?" the Uruk snarled. "What the hell is happening?"
Grima reached forward and stroked the horse's neck, desperate to calm the beast. He whispered to it, half in Rohirric, half in the words of his Dunland grandmother. He had raised the horse from a colt; it knew his scent and voice, and in a moment it settled.
"What's the delay? Where's Sharkû, you little Worm?"
Grima stared down at the Uruk commander. "Sharkû is dead," he said hoarsely. "The war is over. There's no need for it. It's over! Now let me by!" He dug his heels in again and the horse sprang forward.
Muzluk turned to his second.
"Sharkû's dead, eh?" He spat. "Good! I never liked that arrogant slime." He laughed. "Looks like we Uruk-hai are in charge now, eh, lads? This war's not over—it's just begun! With Sharkû out of the way, there'll be more 'spoils' for us victors!"
* * *
Eowyn wrapped the fur-lined cloak about her shoulders and drew her feet up beneath her. She sighed as she watched the King's gaunt face, waxen in the firelight.
It was only now, after midnight, that she could finally settle in at Théoden's side and wait for what she felt in her heart was inevitable. An endless day of agonizingly slow travel was followed by an evening and a night of chaos and disorder. She had spent another long day in ceaseless motion, cajoling, bargaining, ordering, coaxing: in short, playing the role of leader that Théodred had set before her. The folk of Edoras, the village of Harrowdale and the plains of the Westmarch, refugees from the Westfold and a few who had made their long way from the Eastfold all had places now, and food, and shelter. Warm blankets were distributed, the stores of the Hold had been replenished by the wagons brought from Meduseld.
She had begun by praising the Warden of the ancient haven of Dunharrow, and had artfully, she thought, steered the old man to take a well-deserved rest while she took on his role, and more. Well, perhaps not so artfully, for his face had been stiff and his old eyes had flared with unspoken anger. But there was no time now for hours of gentle persuasion. She'd thrust the warrant from the Prince into the man's hands, stood by impatiently as he slowly read the words, the disbelief and scorn easily enough read on his face.
And so the Lady Eowyn had taken command, as decreed by her cousin on behalf of the King. The Warden had smirked and stood by, not lifting a finger to help her sort through all the tasks that awaited her, remaining silent when a word from him could have eased her burden greatly. So be it. She did what had to be done, without any help from stubborn old men, thank you very much.
She had learned, quickly. It amazed her, looking back, that just two days had passed, just two sunsets since she had knelt before the throne of the Mark and accepted Knighthood and command. Every moment had been filled with urgency. Not five minutes passed without the need for another decision, for some decree. As the hours went by she felt herself growing, stretching. She hardly recognized the sound of her own voice.
She shifted against the cushions of the chair. The mailshirt pinched a fold of her skin at the back of her upper right arm. She moved again, adjusting. Eowyn had removed her supple boots; the specially fitted helm lay on its side on a table near the door. Her sword stood within easy reach. But she had no intention of removing the mail. One never knows. Treachery—or jealousy—was a risk any ruler must come to accept. The rings were light but very strong. It will turn any knife in Rohan. She had lain in the mailshirt last night, and would do so again tonight—when, or if, she finally took to a bed.
And sleep? Well, that was something else entirely. She doubted she would sleep. She had no desire to attempt it—for in sleep, there might well be dreams. And right now, dreams were just as well avoided. Dreams were useless things, designed to dash your heart against the stones.
Théoden murmured softly, a low groan. She held her breath, listening. Nothing. He had not spoken in days. He is dying. She had sent the leech, Harwine, away when she arrived this evening.
"There is nothing more for you to do here. Surely there are others who require your sklls more than he," she had said sharply. Again, she hardly knew her own speech. So cold I sound. Heartless. I must school my voice, else they shall grow to hate me…
The leech had gazed at her with a hurt, amazed look, but had bowed and left her alone with the King. But she was right, after all. There were so many who needed Harwine's skills: the wounded from the Fords, old men with fevers, children with the flux, young women come to the day of their confinement. Sickness and childbirth did not stop for war. Nothing did—not old age. Not sorcery, or poison.
Not even the foolishness of love, with all its bitter disappointment and disgrace.
She squeezed her eyes shut, but could not block out that face. He was so tall—taller than the King in his youth, taller than the King's son—and dark, his eyes, his hair and beard. Such a light in him, in his dark eyes, such power in his voice, and wisdom in his face… So different from any man she had ever seen. Dark haired men were rare in Rohan. The only other in close proximity was, ironically, Wormtongue. His opposite, in every other respect… Irony piled upon irony, and none of it the least amusing. For dark-haired Grima Wormtongue, whom she despised, professed to adore her; and dark-haired Lord Aragorn, who stirred her heart and sent a thrill of passion through her body, gazed on her with a look one might give to a wailing child who'd scraped her knee. She rejected the one's love, and was humiliated to see nothing in the other's eyes but pity.
A stupid, ugly mess. For a moment, she felt a flicker of pity herself, for Wormtongue, wherever he was this night. He's as hopeless as I am, the pathetic wretch. But the Worm did not deserve an ounce of her compassion. He was a snake, a traitor. Look what he did to Uncle… A sob rose unbidden from her breast as she gazed at Théoden. He was a father to me, more then my own ever had been… Eowyn struggled to fight back the tears that burned in her eyes, to force the lump back down into her throat.
Théoden drew in a deep ragged breath and released it in a slow, stuttering sigh. Eowyn gasped, and held her own breath. Is this the end? She had been at the bedside of others, knew the rattling announcement of death… She threw back the cloak and stumbled to her feet. In a moment she was on her knees at his side. She grasped his hand.
"Uncle?" she whispered. "My Lord…" His hand was cold in hers.
She waited. He lay still and soundless. Her heart thudded within her.
And then, Théoden's eyes opened. He took in another breath. He turned his head. His deep blue eyes were clear. He frowned slightly, then smiled.
"Eowyn?" he said hoarsely. "Is that you, sister-daughter?"
* * *
Legolas whispered softly to the horse of Rohan, Arod. He had explained his circumstances to Eomer that first morning, and though the young Marshall's face had gone stark white at the mention of Lothlorien, he'd readily agreed to allow the Elf to borrow a mount and send the Elvish mare on her way north to her homeland.
Arod was swift and smoothfooted, for a beast raised by mortals. By the end of that first day's journey the steed was thoroughly accustomed to his new master's more slender build and style of riding. The Rohirrhim had stared as the Elf unfastened the stallion's saddle and removed the bit from his bridle, leaping onto the horse's back with just a folded blanket beneath him. The beast was uncommonly docile and responsive, and soon they had to admit that the stranger was more skilled at riding than any Horse-Lord.
Day became night, and Legolas fretted and paced at their encampment, impatient to go on.
"You may not require rest, my friend, but Arod can use a few hours," Eomer laughed.
The Elf's face twitched with a smile that came and went quickly. "You are undoubtedly right. Yet each hour we tarry is another lost. How long 'tili we arrive at the Fords, Marshall?"
"Three days more, if we ride hard…"
"As we should..."
Eomer frowned. "But we must arrive battle-ready, friend Legolas, for the Isen may well be teeming with Saruman's Orcs."
Legolas said nothing, but stood staring westward into the darkness. He felt torn. Should he ride off at once and leave his new companions to search for what was left of the Fellowship on this side of the Great River? Or should he take the same road more slowly, and linger with the Rohirrhim—with the youthful men whose fates he may well have turned by his appearance on the field of battle? For with the saving of a mortal life, it was said among Wood Elves, came responsibility to care for it.
He frowned and glanced at the young commander. Eomer Eomund's son strode about the encampment of men, more than a hundred of them and not a one older than three decades, the Elf surmised. Children… The Marshall himself could not have seen more than two score years. And yet Legolas saw the skillful manner he had with his men: how he knew each one, how he bolstered their flagging spirits, found a way to press a shoulder here, a forearm there. The fire of his short-lived mortal essence flared about him as a lantern-flame to the eyes of the Elf. That these men, who had not sight for such things, yet admired and loved their young leader was not in doubt.
Like Aragorn, in a way, though so much younger… No, that wasn't right. For in Aragorn the Elf perceived what was hidden: his noble ancestry, the inheritance of true greatness. More like Boromir… Yes, that was it. Eomer of Rohan reminded him of the Captain of Gondor. He wondered where the Captain might be on this long night, whether yet in his own City, or still afloat on Anduin, or traveling between. And the others… He frowned, and chided himself. He had given no thought to the others for days. What of the Ring-Bearer and his faithful servant, upon whom all their fates rested? What of the child-Hobbit Peregrin, so far from his home, so afraid? And indeed, what of Mithrandir? Would that they are safe… Would that they are well and unhurt… Let the light of the Stars shine on them this night, and in the darkest nights of all to come…
He nodded slowly as he looked around at the Rohirrhim. He would stay with them, and with this young commander: for new-found friendship, and in recollection of a fellowship divided.
The miles sped beneath their horses' hooves as the eored rode westward. Everywhere they went they saw the signs of war: fires smoldering in abandoned settlements, the noisome carcasses of cattle and goats, empty barns and neglected fields. All Rohan seemed empty. Flanked by a sea of sprouting grass on their left and the twisted wall of Fangorn on their right, the men and the Elf passed through the Eastfold, the Westemnet and into the Westmarch of Rohan. Distant mountains loomed on either side. A threatening mass of billowing clouds rose at their backs. Legolas glanced over his shoulder and felt a shudder through his flesh. A storm of Mordor, surely… He searched the horizon beneath the black wall; he saw no troops or invaders, yet it seemed Enemies surrounded them. The hordes of Saurman before us, and the malice of Sauron at our backs…
Night fell again, but Eomer spurred them onward. He chose a route that took them toward the Fords, steering away from Edoras and the royal stronghold and more directly to where he was certain the Rohirrhim were already engaged. The stench of death mingled with acrid smoke was carried on the night breeze, and all could sense the tension of battle in the air. The Marshall dropped back to ride beside the Elf.
"We should have met scouts, or patrols abroad in these parts by now. Something is greatly amiss. Friend Legolas, 'tis said the sight of the Dwimmerfolk is keen. See you anything before us, any clue to what might lie ahead?"
The Elf slowed Arod and cantered to the edge of the troop of men. Eomer signaled, and the eored halted, the horses stamping and snorting in the darkness. They watched as Legolas whispered to his mount, and then to their amazement, stood upon the stallion's back. Arod was motionless as the Elf slowly gazed about, west, south and north. They saw him stop and look north and west a second time. Then he gracefully slid back astride Arod and trotted to where Eomer waited.
"A single rider comes. He is not, I deem, of your folk, for his hair and beard are dark. He rides without livery, yet with great speed." He pointed northwest.
The others peered into the night, unseeing.
"How far?" Eomer brandished his spear, balancing it in his grip.
"Two leagues, or less," Legolas said. "He will be upon us in minutes."
Soon they could all see the figure coming toward them from the night. He seemed exhausted, or ill, for he was flung forward onto the neck of his mount. The wind shifted, and the Moon peeked out from behind a scuttling cloud for an instant. Suddenly, Eomer cried out.
"Wormtongue!" he snarled. "And see the direction he rides? He comes from Isengard! The foul traitor…"
With that the Marshall launched his spear. Legolas gasped as they heard a strangled scream. To attack another of your own kind, with no warning! What sort of vicious brutes are these men? He spurred Arod forward and in moments was beside the fallen man.
Grima was curled on the ground, his horse snorting with terror nearby. Eomer's spear protruded from the man's belly, and red blossomed on his garments. The Elf slid off his horse and knelt beside him, even as the rest of the Rohirrhim arrived.
"…must tell them…"
"Yes?" the Elf said, as he laid his hand on the man's brow.
"…is dead… dead, I say…"
"Who? Who is dead?"
Eomer appeared and stood near Legolas. He gazed down stonily.
"What does this lying snake have to say?" he snarled. "Worm, will you die with a lie on your lips?"
Legolas threw Eomer a sharp look. "Let him speak."
"You don't know this one…"
"Eomer, let him speak!"
Grima grasped at the Elf's sleeve. "Saruman…is dead…"
The others murmured and looked at one another. The word passed back into the knot of men. Someone shouted.
"The White Wizard! He says the Wizard is dead!"
The sounds of cheering broke out. Eomer turned and shouted.
"Hold! Silence! We know not if this is but another of his lies…"
Legolas stood and frowned at the young commander. "Peace, Eomer!" he said in a hushed voice. "He has, at most, minutes of life remaining. Whatever this man once was to you, I see no lie in his eyes, nor do I hear falsehood in his voice." He grasped the Marshall's wrist. "He is dying. Hear his final words. He speaks truth."
The Elf knelt again, and after a moment's hesitation, Eomer crouched beside him. Eothain brought a covered lantern and let the beam fall on the scene. Grima gazed up at Eomer, his face contorted with agony.
"I tried to stop it," he groaned. "…but they won't stop…"
"What do you mean? Who won't stop?"
"The Uruks… I told them the war was over, now that the wizard was dead… I heard them laughing as I rode on… They marched anyway…"
"Where?" Eomer said urgently. He reached out and clutched Grima's shoulder. "Where do they march?"
"Helm's Deep… We were routed at the Fords… His scouts reported… the largest force fell back to the Deeping Coomb…"
Eomer cursed. "What of Théodred? And the King? Is he…"
"Théodred leads now… the King… I am not sure… Dunharrow…" He cried out as a spasm shook him. He retched, and a line of dark blood trailed from his lips. "That is where I was going… to defend her…"
Eomer's face suddenly flushed again with anger. He raised his fist and made to strike the dying man.
"Don't you dare speak of her, you snake…"
Legolas restrained his hand and glared. He turned again to Grima.
"How can you be certain that Saruman is dead?"
Grima was trembling and ashen-grey as he tried to focus on the Elf's face.
"Because I killed him," he whispered. A slight smile appeared. "…slit his vile throat…" His eyes fluttered, then opened for the last time. He turned his gaze on Eomer.
"Tell her… I did it for her…"
Grima's eyes dulled, and another rivulet of dark blood surged from his slack mouth. His struggling ceased.
Legolas remained as he had been, kneeling at the side of the dead man, even as Eomer jumped to his feet and began ordering the men to make ready to ride to Helm's Deep. The Elf was stunned. Curunir had turned toward darkness, surely, but this…! Is it possible, that he who had once been so high could end in this ignoble manner? He shuddered. How can it be? An Istar!
He was snapped from his troubled musings when the Marshall shouted.
"Legolas! Leave him--there is no time! We ride!"
The Elf looked down at the twisted body one last time. Then he stood, whistled, and Arod appeared. Without another backward glance, he leapt onto the horse's back and joined the Riders galloping west and south.
* * *
The great horse seemed to know precisely where to go, how to find the scattered Rohirrhim and their steeds. Was it scent, or the faint thrumming of hoofbeats in the turf? Whinnies too faint for the human ear to discern? Aragorn couldn't guess. He could only be grateful that Shadowfax apparently understood the importance of their desperate errand, and was willing and able to take charge of it himself.
He was thankful, too, that he could speak their tongue, and that Théodred had thought to press a token into his hand before he sped away. He touched the bronze and silver dagger with green gems flashing on its hilt, making certain it was still tucked it in his belt. The same smiths who had fashioned the Prince's distinctive armor made the knife to match. It was useful when he met suspicion. Every man in the realm recognized that dagger, and guessed the meaning of its presence in another's hand. Either the Prince was dead, and they gazed on his murderer, or what the stranger said was true. And fortunately, their hearts told them that this stern, grey-clad man who spoke their language was a friend, and that the very survival of the realm was at stake.
The plains of Rohan were the province of grass—and wind. For grass he was also thankful, as the horse's speed was remarkably swift on the forgiving ground. For wind, less so. He bowed his head before its sweeping force, narrowed his eyes against its sting. The winds of the Riddermark howled with glee as its icy fingers penetrated through cloak, jerkin and shirt. As night deepened, the cold descended. Soon, Aragorn's ungloved hands ached with the chill, his face felt numb. He hunched forward, trying to hold onto what little warmth remained in his body.
He found Grimbold first, just two hours after he parted from Théodred's party, and the two old campaigners devised a workable plan. Useless for cavalrymen and foot soldiers to trickle into the Deeping Coomb, a few at a time, only to be slaughtered by the hordes that would soon encircle the place. No—they could only succeed if they came amassed, an ambush from above. The gathering place was set, the time arranged. Grimbold and the few remaining of his men who still had their steeds galloped in one direction, and Aragorn sped in the other.
The storm hit hard at midnight. The sky turned utterly black, save for the blinding flashes that struck with no warning. Aragorn felt malevolence in the wind, heard a low voice muttering at his back. Ice-laden rain lashed him, and Shadowfax was spattered with mud. Still they raced onward, searching for any man armed and still able to march or ride to the Mark's greatest hour of need.
The pain in his shoulder grew ever stronger, mile by mile, hour by hour. He had denied it to his step-brethren and his lieutenant; but alone, his garments soaked through, his flesh chilled to the core, struggling to stay astride the great Mearas-Lord, the man who would be King of two realms could not deny it to himself. The tainted axe-blade had dug deep, even to the bone. He feared that whatever filth the sharp edge had carried was burrowing further than even the Peredhil suspected. He fought off his dread at the thought of what might be required to rid him of it.
But now was not the time. Such a thing must be delayed, until more urgent needs had passed. He could bear nearly any pain. He had no other choice. He would do what he must, regardless of the consequences. And if—nay, when the darkness passed and his heart's desire was fulfilled, then… What would be, would be. He would yet be the Heir of Isildur and Elendil, whatever was left of his strength—whatever was left of him.