5. Under the Shadow of the Gate
The messenger guided me into the Hold itself. Father had been taken to a small guardroom just inside the doors; he lay on the stone floor, his head and shoulders covered with his shield. Someone had taken the time to arrange his sword on his breast, and clasp his hands round the hilt.
I fell to my knees and reached for the shield. "They said he had been cut, mistress - you should not -" the messenger protested nervously.
"Mother of mercy, leave me be!" I cried. "Go, find my brother, living or dead, and bring him here."
I grasped the shield by the edges, the iron binding cold to my touch, and lifted it off my father's face. His eyes were gone. An ear had been torn off. Cruel slashes, clotted with dried blood, marred his face and neck. I did not know I was weeping until tears streaked the blood on my father's cheeks.
Steps echoed on the stone behind me, and I hastily covered Father with his shield again and rose to my feet. Halred pelted in from the corridor and stopped as if he'd run into a wall. "Father..." He dropped to his knees and lifted the shield, just as I had done. I knelt behind him and laid my cheek against his arm as we both gazed at the ruined face.
"We were separated in the last fight before the Gate," Halred choked out. "He was with the King, and I with the Northener, Lord Aragorn. I did not see him fall - Ceorl found me and told me..." He turned away from the body and flung his arms about me. We clung to each other and wept like children, as we had not since our mother's death.
* * *
Our father was buried that afternoon. I knew it was an honour for him to lie set apart in a grave under the shadow of the Gate where he fell, rather than in the common mound with other Riders, but it was hard to be mindful of that.
The King's herald spoke some words, I think. I remember only staring at the shield that had been laid over Father's head and shoulders again. The herald's voice fell silent, and the only sound was the wind sweeping up the ramp from the wall and sighing in my ears. Slowly I became aware that the others were looking at Halred and me expectantly. What had I missed? Did they want one of us to speak? My throat ached from the effort of holding in my tears - I could say nothing.
Gently, the King took my arm and led me to the graveside. He bent to gather a handful of earth from the heap, and let it fall onto my father's chest. Halred and I copied his action. That seemed to be the end of it, thankfully. Two Riders with spades moved forward to fill the hole. As the few mourners turned away down the long ramp, we stood and watched our father's body disappear under the gritty earth.
When at last we turned away from the filled grave, I saw that the king and Éomer had also remained behind. Theoden spoke quietly to me. "Have you any family to go to now, my dear? I know that your father sent you to your uncle for safety; he spoke of it to me on our ride here."
I shook my head. "Fossdale was fired by Dunlendings on their way to the Deeping, lord. My uncle and his family were killed, and I do not know if any of the farm folk survived."
He looked at me with eyes once again gentle and wise, unclouded by Wormtongue's poisonous counsel. "For the love I bore Háma and your mother, I would take you into my household if you wish it, Elfled. Will you ride with us to Dunharrow, and remain there with Éowyn when the muster rides on?"
"Thank you, Théoden King. I... it is very kind of you..." My voice cracked, and I could say no more.
"I must go on to Isengard now, child, but perhaps later as we ride to Dunharrow there will be time to talk of your father. His memory will be dear to me always." He stooped to kiss my brow and turned to go.
That evening as the King and his companions, including my brother, rode away to Isengard the people of the Westfold sang with joy at the victory. I could not lift up my voice with them. The darkling trees that had saved us loomed in the shadows flowing down the vale as the sun set; they seemed to be greedily devouring the light. I remembered my father's tales of the uncanny forest to the north and shivered - I didn't see how trees could tell an Orc with an axe from a man with a sword. Passing beneath those boughs seemed foolhardy indeed.
* * *
Next morning I woke with the first touch of the sun on my face, for the chamber of the Hornburg I had been given faced east. I should have gone to Erkenbrand and asked if there was aught I could do to help in clearing the caves. Instead, I avoided company by climbing the narrow stair all the way to the topmost tower of the Burg. Below the Deeping-folk were already scattering back to their homes; from this height they seemed small and busy as ants. My father's grave was a tiny blot of dark freshly-turned earth.
I sat on one of the parapets and looked to the east, where strangely-coloured smokes and hazes still smudged the air above Isengard. Would Halred and the King return, or had they ridden into another cunning wizardly trap? It hardly seemed to matter. I felt unreal, unanchored, as insubstantial and fleeting as thistledown. It was easy to picture the wind taking me up and blowing me from the tower walls, far, far away.
But in the end I came down from the tower and found work to do. It was better to have something to keep my hands busy, I found; then the strange sensation that I was floating away troubled me less. The Riders would not let me work among the slain, but there was much to do besides gathering together bodies. In haste before the battle, some of the stock had simply been turned loose in the coomb behind the Wall to fend for themselves. Now they must be rounded up and taken back to their home pastures, so I helped herd together stray sheep and hill-wise goats.
Many more horses than Riders had survived the battle, for there had been little room for mounted fighting within the Deep, and the extra mounts needed to be tended and prepared for the mountain journey to Dunharrow. I cosseted Moth that evening, currying her, coaxing her to eat, and trying to reassure her. She knew well her master was gone, though, for the normally even-tempered mare was restless and ill-mannered.
In the last hour before dawn, the echoing clatter of hooves in the court below my window told me that the King and his company had returned from Isengard, and I ran down the stairs to see if Halred were there. Peering from the shadows of the stairwell, I was amazed – there were twice as many Riders with the King now. At first I thought Théoden had found more survivors from the Fords, but these were not men of the Mark, but strangers clad in grey and riding rough-coated, though sturdy, beasts.
The anxious knot between my shoulders relaxed when I saw Halred riding next to Éomer. He caught sight of me half-hidden in the stairway arch and winked. I gave him a hasty wave, and climbed back to my chamber to try again to snatch some sleep before the ride to Harrowdale.
* * *
It was an hour past noon, and the sun was hot on my shoulders as the King's Riders waited outside the Gate. Many men had departed for the muster the night before, but at least four full éoreds remained to ride with Théoden, and the strange warriors in grey cloaks - kin of the Lord Aragorn, so the Riders said - patiently sat their shaggy horses as well. The King was accompanied by a new squire, another child-like figure Halred claimed was a holbytla from the far North. I wondered if he was a great warrior in his own land as I pulled strands of Moth's pale mane between my fingers; it needed re-braiding, and I told myself to do so before she left Dunharrow as Halred's spare mount.
Finally Éomer and Lord Aragorn came forth from the Hold, and spoke at length with the King. Halred and I were too far away to hear their talk, but we saw many of the Riders near them make the sign against ill-luck and wondered what was afoot. In the end the northern lord and his companions returned to the Hornburg, leaving only Riders of the Mark (and one halfling) to ride with the King. Both Théoden and Éomer looked pale and shaken, as though they had heard ill news.
I tried to forget that as we set off through the foothills, though it was an ill omen with which to begin our journey and as we rode on, rumours whispered back from the head of the line that the northerners would take the Paths of the Dead. I shivered, and hoped that we were not all riding to that end.
* * *
Notes: A full éored was made up of 120 Riders, according to Unfinished Tales.