Mae govannen, my friends. This tale picks up with Helm’s Deep and will follow the journey of Legolas and his friends long after ROTK has concluded, right to their last days in Middle Earth. Changes in the proper order of events, the characters, and the camera’s focus are the fault of my Muse more than Peter Jackson. 
Place cursor over Elvish words for translation in status bar, or click for separate window. Comments are greatly appreciated!

Updates: (4/15/03) There's a mailing list for this story which will let you know when I post new chapters.

Click here to go to Part II.

Part I: Helm’s Deep

Auth anglenna a er-rochon ú-thia. 
Cû mín vi camen. Nae boe enni vellon a ú-goth.

Théoden strode out of the king’s hall, past the crumbling knees of Helm Hammerhand’s statue, and circled the outermost ring wall of the keep. His boots rang heavily on the flagstones. Flanked by his guard, the king mounted the stairs of the gate’s overlook, a battlemented platform which jutted like a ship’s prow towards the deserted plains of Rohan. He braced his hands against the weathered rock of the parapet and looked to the north. Soon the gravelled flats before him would be filled with a vast army. Only the inner and outer keep, the great Deeping Wall spanning from its ramparts to the opposite cliff, and the keep’s high tower stood between his people’s mountain refuge and an endless tide of swords.

“No foe has ever taken the Hornburg, so long as men are left to defend her,” the king proclaimed in a booming voice. Warriors in the courtyard behind him straightened with a scuff of chain and metal.

Their dwarven visitor gave the broken statue a sober glance, then rapped the back of his mailed fist against a railing. “There is good stone here,” Gimli acknowledged.

“Foes shall break upon our walls like water against rock,” Théoden stated with proud conviction, turning back towards the bailey and the tower.

Only one set of shoulders was not flung back as the king’s words kindled the hope his men so desperately needed to survive the night. The elf stood off to one side, gaze turned inwards. There was neither fear nor grief to be seen on the ageless face, yet he might well have been stone himself.

He was just one warrior in three hundred: the king had many more pressing concerns. But there was no other like him. Théoden had begun to believe the legends about his strange folk of whom the Rohirrim spoke with whispered fear. Right now the fair-faced youth— no, older than trees, as the king often had to remind himself— seemed nearly human, although he mourned the loss of a comrade in a very different way from humankind. He was quiet. Only that.

Théoden rested a hand firmly on Legolas’ shoulder as he passed, enough to make the elf stir and fix blue-gray eyes on him before inclining his head courteously to the king. Then Théoden passed back into the citadel and launched into a rapid spate of commands to his followers. The doors boomed shut behind them.

Gimli came to a halt by the elf and gave him a long look. “It is good stone,” he said, voice even gruffer than usual.

Legolas dropped his gaze to the dwarf and smiled quietly.

Together they turned and strolled back towards the Deeping Wall, drawing whispers from men who did not know about elven hearing. Their journey took some time, for there was no easy way between the citadel and outer defenses. They passed through the narrow tunnel delved in the bailey’s outer wall, along a high parapet that hugged the massive outcrop on which the Hornburg was built, and down a long, broad set of steps to the deep garth. Here men were hurriedly gathering rocks as crude missiles for the murder-holes, setting up watchfires, escorting the women and children back into the tower and the caves beneath it. Elf and dwarf drew stares as they passed among these people, but also stammered words of thanks. Then the pair climbed the nearer of the two long stairways hugging the stout wall’s inner face. From there they could survey the Deeping Coomb, a great gorge between two steep spurs of the mountains, whose jaws lay open towards the Gap of Rohan and distant Isengard.

It was drawing towards sunset, and massive stormclouds were eating up what light remained in the sky. The air was warm, strangely stifling, and too dry for the season, as if the clouds above were full of smoke instead of rain. The sun had fallen behind the mountains, and their somber shadows stretched from cliff to cliff, covering the long causeway leading up to the main gate of the Hornburg. In the distance, the fields of Rohan were yet sunlit, but a dull haze, tinted red in the last hour of the day, lay heavily upon them.

All these things they saw, or at least the elf saw them. The dwarf did not pay much attention: he had his axe. They stood looking out and sharing very little speech, the last two companions— for all they knew— left of the Fellowship. The Rohirrim gave the pair a respectful distance. Neither dwarf nor elf were the sort to ponder how they of all their race had come to be there, in a fortress of men whose prospects of lasting the night were slim, but there were mutters around them from men who had time, too much time, to think right now.

Behind and below them in the Deep, Théoden’s captains were distributing spears, swords, helms and mail to all the able-bodied men among the families who had taken refuge there at their king’s bidding. Gimli trudged over to the edge of the wall-walk and stooped to inspect their equipment. He grumbled. “Peasants, and most have seen too many winters.” 

“Or too few,” Legolas returned, not turning around.

The dwarf heaved an exasperated sigh. Then he raised his head, catching an echo in his helm of a sound dim and far away. It sounded like a marsh-bird’s mournful cry, but Gimli knew it was something else. “Friend or foe?” he asked diffidently.

Legolas had straightened behind him. “That is no orc horn,” he said fiercely. He turned and raced for the nearest staircase. “Théoden King!”

Blinking, Gimli started to follow his fleet companion, then pulled up short and squinted out through a crenel. There were points of light in the gloom, and they were not torches. The faint glint of gold was like a river of fish coming towards them. Yes. It had to be a small host on the march. Not Éomer’s, however, for they were on foot.  Perhaps more men of Rohan?

“Make ready to open the gate!” Théoden shouted, striding towards the stairs up to the keep. Legolas was dashing ahead of the king— curse the boy, following him was like trying to snatch a spark sprung from the forge— and was already out of sight by the time Gimli reached the head of the stairs.

“More of those wights!” said a soldier leaning on the parapet.

“Elves!” marvelled the younger man beside him. “It’s more elves!”

“Much good that will do,” the graybeard muttered.

Gimli moved up beside them and peered out. Elves? But the men’s eyes were not deceived. The flashes of gold had resolved into figures moving like links in a chainmail shirt, in perfect unison.

Gimli growled to the men taking no notice of him, “You’d best keep your voice down, horse-master. You’re within their arrow-range.”

He grinned dourly at the men’s expressions as they turned and stared at him. The elven company was still half a league away.

When Gimli finally reached the courtyard behind the main gate, the doors were already open. It took some elbow-work for him to reach the king and plant himself at Legolas’ side. Around them, tense guards gripped spears and swords, watching the darkness beyond the portal, unsure after all what might be coming. The stones trembled lightly, but the tramp of the marching host was muffled even when the front ranks came through the gateway without breaking stride. Théoden’s people were caught offguard. There was a general rustle of indrawn breath, creaking leather, and weapons clenched as the men awaited word from their king.

The dwarf recognized the elf who came forward, bowing courteously to the king.  “I am Haldir,” he said smoothly. “I bring word from Lord Elrond of Rivendell. Long ago there was an alliance of elves and men against the foes of the free world. Now again the Enemy has arisen, and it is time to renew that alliance. I bring a thousand bows in token of this. Where shall we stand?”

Théoden, dumbfounded, took a moment to find his voice. “Captain Haldir, you and all your folk are more welcome than the tongues of my men can speak. You may stand anywhere in Rohan you have a will.”

“Your walls are broad,” said Haldir.

The king studied him, taking the elf’s measure and collecting his thoughts. Then the man smiled. “Come, lord, and you may be the judge.”

Haldir inclined his head to Théoden, and a second time to Legolas who stood beside the king. The Rohirrim raised their spears and parted, drawing back against the ring-walls and standing at attention in wonderment and unease. Théoden turned to lead the way, and the elves followed him without looking left or right. Behind the last mailed foot, the causeway doors came together with a dull boom.

Mae govannen,” Legolas said in a low, eager voice to Haldir, falling in beside him. “I did not look for your coming.”

“Where is Lord Aragorn?” Haldir queried. “I carry a message for him from Imladris.”

A gleam of silver appeared in Legolas’ palm in reply. The Evenstar lay there, even brighter amidst the gloom and the walls of men.

“What is this?” Haldir asked sharply.

The Mirkwood elf shook his head.

“We were ambushed by Warg-riders on the road to Helm’s Deep,” Gimli growled, stumping along next to his friend. “We fought to keep those devils from slaughtering the common folk: peasants, women, children, all those we were guarding on the way here. We couldn’t find Aragorn anywhere when the battle was over.”

“He fell,” Legolas said bluntly.

The elf-host came to a halt between one step and the next. There was a ripple of... something... through their ranks. No expression changed, no word was said, and yet it was as if a cold wind had passed among them. The men of Helm’s Deep looked at one another in consternation. The king stopped too and turned, his jaw tightening as he realized the cause of the hitch.

“Then we are needed all the more, Thranduilion,” Haldir said, breaking the tense silence. He resumed his march, the other elves following as before. There were murmurs of relief and approval from the men lining the walls who had been watching this exchange. King Théoden gave Haldir a grim nod of thanks before passing through the narrow tunnel leading out to the deep garth. When they had reached the bottom of the stairs and open ground, again, the elves did not pause, but simply parted, half of them taking up position on either side of the stream that divided the garth, and half heading for the battlements of the Deeping Wall.

“Thranduilion?” Théoden asked Gimli, when the dwarf came up beside him.

“Legolas. His father Thranduil is the king of Mirkwood in Rhovanion,” he answered loudly.

Many heads turned, although most of the men were staring towards the glittering host of elves already. Several conversations were cut short or triggered by Gimli’s revelation. Théoden gave the reserved green-clad elf a look of fresh appraisal. Long ago by men’s reckoning, the Rohirrim had dwelt in Rhovanion, west of the great forest.

Gimli noticed Legolas looking towards him with a wry expression. The dwarf drew himself up with an audible huff. He was careful not to smile when he spotted a hint of a grin flicker across the elf’s face.

One other pair of eyes was fixed keenly on Legolas’ shoulders as he mounted the steps beside Haldir. The watcher was smaller and stockier than the rest of the company, and moved in step but not with the grace of elvenkind.

Night was falling, and through its murk the watchers could begin to make out a red glow on the horizon which had nothing to do with sunset. Rain was ringing on mail and helm when a lone rider came trailing up the arching span of the causeway. It was not an elf, and there was no bright mail; the horse was without gear or harness, and the rider looked as if he had bathed in a sump. But this time the clamor was heard clear back into the heart of the citadel, where Théoden was conferring with his captains. Legolas followed the shouting to the outer keep. For once the dwarf had beaten him, since Gimli had gone to hunt for armor while the elf sought a place for them among his people on the battlements. The elf paused on the lip of the ring-wall, tasting one of those rare mortal moments between now and now when the world could change utterly. He looked down. This time, Aragorn was there.

In spite of threats and chastisements, the dwarf seemed to be doing the man no worse harm than he had already suffered that day, so Legolas did not come down. There was little time for reunion. Aragorn strode for the citadel with Gimli trudging after. It showed something of the Ranger’s condition that he failed to notice the resolute elf planted before the doors to the inner keep, until Legolas blocked his way with a stern, “Le abdollen.” The elf held out his hand.

Aragorn broke into a ragged grin as he clasped it.  He glanced down. The Evenstar glittered in a palm that was not fair but gnarled, filthy, and stained with dried blood. And that was where it belonged.

The man’s fingers closed tightly over it. “Hannon le.”

Only then did the elf smile, and Aragorn raised his eyes to meet the fierce affection in the gaze of a friend, one who knew the greatest treasure in Rohan now lay in Aragorn’s hand.

The world settled back into its proper place along with the jewel. Legolas fell into step beside him as if he had been there all along.

“Aragorn?” said the elf quietly.

The man glanced at him.

Legolas shook his head. “You look terrible.”

“Comely elf,” Aragorn muttered under his breath, drawing a snort from Gimli. “Next time, you can kiss my horse.”

The doors of the king’s hall yielded to Aragorn’s shove and swung open with a ponderous groan. Théoden, awaiting them with his captains, stood in full armor. Old Gamling was poised at his liege’s side with a mailed glove resting on his sword-hilt. A whisper passed around the stout-walled chamber: Aragorn. Their faces loosened with amazement as much as if their bedraggled visitor had come with the light of the Elendilmir shining from his brow, and the fair elf and sturdy dwarf that stationed themselves on either side of the portal were an everyday occurrence.

“What sorcery is this?” the king marvelled, in the silence between the Ranger’s slow footfalls.

Aragorn crossed the length of the hall and bowed his head. “Théoden King. I arrive ahead of the host of Saruman, but they are hard on my heels. How are the defenses?”

Théoden looked at him, dazed.  “I dreamed they were shouting the name of Théodred. And when I realized my ears did not deceive me, I knew it was only the frayed hopes of my men, giving voice to a dream.”

“I am sorry.” Aragorn raised his chin.  “Your son’s horse, Brego, found me, raised me, and bore me here needing no guidance. I owe him my life, and through him Théodred. It was not my intent to come so honored.”

The eyes of the king hardened, taking in the sorry state of the Ranger’s attire, the layer of grime that could not be scoured away by river or rain, and his torn and bloody shoulder. He hardly cut a regal figure just now.  “If my son’s horse has a mind to bear you anywhere in Rohan,” Théoden said finally, “who am I to oppose him? Also, your debt is paid.”

Aragorn turned at the flash of gold, as one other came into the king’s hall. This time it was his turn to gape. The bright elven-mail, sweeping mahogany bow spiralled with gold, and the gleaming swan feathers of the arrows nodding at the elf’s shoulder seemed unreal set against drab walls of rough-hewn stone. The one who bore them made the men of Théoden’s household look like mere hobbits by comparison. The elf strode towards him with a glad expression, although his speech was grave.  “Our kinsman said you might not be coming. I am pleased he was mistaken.”

Mae govannen, mellon nín! Man angol hen?” Aragorn forgot all decorum and embraced the elven captain, who suffered it good-naturedly.

Haldir answered in level tones. “I come at Elrond’s bidding and Galadriel’s. We have not forgotten the Heir of Elendil or the Last Alliance, whose work is incomplete until our Enemy is vanquished for all time. The elves are with you, Aragorn.”

King Théoden clapped a broad hand on the Ranger’s back. “You’ve brought us that luck of yours on which the dwarf keeps harping, Lord Aragorn. Our defenses are strong indeed! Let them come.”

Such simple moments belonged to another world.

Lightning clawed the sky, but it was a frozen tableau compared to the seething battle below. The sea of orcs stretched off into the night, a river of torches unquenched by the sparse hard drops of rain. Sheets of arrows arced overhead from the elves standing in the garth behind the wall. Up top all was a flurry of bodies, blood, weapons, snarling orcs hurtling down from ladders as fast as ladders and grappling hooks were hurled up, elves flashing with an economy of deadly motion, slicing through their most hated foes. And there was one formidable dwarf.

“Four!” roared Gimli only yards away, slamming his axe through another orc-helm.

“I have twenty-three,” Legolas sang out. Nothing touched the forest elf as he spun and danced on the narrow lip of stone, living in a different world from the slow-moving bodies of the orcs heaving around him. His knife spun and plunged into another chest, pulled out in a smooth arc, and alighted briefly in the scabbard tucked against his quiver, as he plucked another arrow and laid it to string. Two more orcs tumbled from the nearest scaling ladder, arrow-pierced. Knives and shafts flew in a complex rhythm as their owner cut his way through mortal danger with the fearlessness of his race. This was life. This was death. Two ends of the same blade.

In the thick of melee, Legolas was abstractly aware of his own people about him, burning with an inner fire like the stars for which they were named, existing in a different plane almost from the races he had come to know in the Fellowship. He had learned respect for mortals whose courage was honed by fear. Their fighting was more akin to orc than elf: broad movements, finesse without grace, battle without beauty, seizing openings with economy however they came to hand.  On so dark a night as this, their courage and skill would be sore tested, for without the eyesight of elves, they faced a nightmare struggle against shadows they could barely see. But the men of Rohan had the defense of the keep and the bailey behind the gate; on the Deeping Wall, Legolas was surrounded only by his own kind. His heart was leaping with the flash of the elven-blades beside him, the music of the bows of Lórien undaunted by the lashing rain, and the voices of his fair kindred raised in defiance not song. It awakened in him something that had slept since Rivendell, or perhaps even since the Battle of the Five Armies almost eighty years ago.

Yet Uruk snarls drowned out fair voices, and swift as they were, elves could not dodge arrows, nor did every orc-blade miss its mark. Another defender took the place of the last to fall. Legolas would not have noticed this one more than the rest, but the fighter was small, solidly built, more like one of the sons of men pressed into the desperate siege. He moved swiftly yet unhurriedly, using movement and space itself as if his sword were only an extension of that space. That was an elven trick. He had some knack for turning the treacherous footing, rain-slicked stones that made skidding easier than stopping, to his own advantage. Yet there was something wrong with him, for the force of his blows was weak, and his swordsmanship was more like Gimli’s hewing strokes than the controlled arcs of elven blade-work. The fighter’s face was familiar. But all this came to Legolas in a moment: his world was balanced between the twang of his bow and the edges of his blades.

Finally there was a lull as he cut through the last orc from the most recent attempt on the walls. The cries of men and orcs, the thud of more ladders hitting the ramparts, and the tumult and confusion of battle were suddenly more dissonant and jarring, now that the play of movement for the elf had briefly come to a standstill.  The reek of torches, metal and oil, the living and the dying smote upon his senses. He took a breath through clenched teeth and nocked another arrow. At the same time he spared a concerned glance for the smaller fighter, to learn whether his neighbor was wounded, or whether the host of the Galadrim had admitted inexperienced striplings into its ranks.

It was not a he, and Legolas had seen those intent blue eyes somewhere before. She looked up, fierce delight in the grin she flashed towards him before turning to meet another ladder bearing down on them. The leading orc was carved open between his knives and her sword, before its boots ever reached the flagstones.

“Lord Thranduilion,” she said with a duck of her chin as she twisted her blade back, around, and down into the the face-grill of the next orc-head that popped over the wall. There was no time for a reply. Aragorn was shouting for Legolas, and a moment later the strange fighter was forgotten as the elf bent his bow to the Dúnadan’s will. One shaft punched through the oncoming foe racing towards the foot of the wall below him, carrying a huge sputtering torch that shone with ominous light. 

“Bring him down, Legolas!” Aragorn cried. “Dago hon!”

Two more arrows found their mark, but the dying creature refused to fall.

Elven hearts are not easily moved to frustration, so it was with detached resignation that Legolas watched his quarry stagger from view into a low culvert in the wall beneath their feet. He did not know what the burning brand portended, but he braced himself. The Deeping Wall exploded. With a shattering roar, huge slabs flew in all directions, and the parapet vanished almost to where he stood. Off to his right, Legolas saw the Ranger fall and strike hard on the stony yard far below.

“Aragorn!” Gimli’s anguished shout on the opposite side of the breach spoke for both of them.

The dwarf simply hurled himself down from the battlements, even as the ruins of the wall came thundering back to earth along with broken men, bits of orc, armor, stone, wood and flame. The unleashed stream concealed both dwarf and man from Legolas’ eyes. Through it he could see the dark heaving shapes of orcs flinging themselves against the current, most falling and being carried away, but the strongest beginning to pour through the wall. Then Legolas spotted the swing of Gimli’s axe. The dwarf was all but submerged, wading in water and foes surging around him, keeping them back from the spot where the man had fallen. Aragorn’s luck still held; dazed but alive he was staggering to his knees.

An orc-shield skittered past Legolas’ feet towards the head of the stairway plunging down to the breach. He leapt and rode it down, sending arrows into the tumult around his friends. Living orcs were beaten back by the bodies of his victims, and at the bottom he kicked the shield into the throat of one more. To his right, Aragorn flung himself onto higher ground and turned to face the onslaught. Elf-arrows whistled around him, finding many marks in the tide of orcs spilling through the wall. But Gimli had not followed him, and Legolas had his hands full with Uruk-hai at the foot of the stairs. The Ranger mustered the elves behind him for a counter-charge and met the influx of enemies head on, fighting his way to the side of the hard-pressed dwarf. Elves and Uruks clashed together in the rain, amidst the churning stream, on the ruins of the wall that was already lost. There was blood in the water. Bodies were falling down from above. This only spurred the elves to greater fury, battling with the cold swift precision of the first-born. But they were being pushed back, foot by foot, and every instant they were more outnumbered. Horns from the citadel sounded the retreat.

Gimli and Aragorn hewed a route towards the keep, making an opening for the Galadrim. Legolas, retreating in their wake, picked off what targets he could from the line of orcs swarming the stairs of the broken wall. He was running out of arrows. Aragorn was calling urgently up to Haldir, who was covering for his own people and had not yet left the battlements. “Nan barad! Haldir, nan barad!” Some of the elves were fighting their way down to the garth. Others, hemmed in, simply jumped from the heights to the Deep where the Uruk-hai were now pouring in. Out of the corner of his eye Legolas saw Haldir stagger, pull a cruel-looking knife out of his arm, and swerve towards the stairs just as an orc rose behind him to sink a sword into his back.

It was a sight the Mirkwood elf would later have time to mourn.

Unfortunately, Aragorn had also seen it and turned back with a cry. He dove through the ranks of orcs and gained the stairs, hacking and shoving foes over the side as he struggled to reach the captain of the Galadrim.

Gimli cursed at Legolas’ elbow; they had already reached the foot of the broad stairway leading up to the keep. The last of the elves were sprinting past them, some turning to shower arrows as they headed for the upper level and the defenses of the Hornburg. By now the ground between Gimli and Legolas and the wall was a mass of Uruk-hai.


“I know.” The elf nocked an arrow and held it, covering Aragorn with disciplined concentration; there was no room for error. He had three shafts left. Gimli planted himself at the elf’s knees on the step below and added a few more orcs to his own score. For the moment, most of the Uruk-hai before them were dispatching the gravely wounded or scaling the wall to clear the few remaining defenders.

Aragorn had reached the dying captain. He stooped and pulled Haldir across his knees, oblivious to Théoden shouting down to him from the bailey. Gimli was roaring out numbers while he slew. There now were none left alive in the garth save enemies, and these were beginning to converge upon the unlikely pair at the foot of the keep’s stairs, seeing new sport. For Legolas, however, none of this mattered. His mind and instincts were committed solely to the space around Aragorn, its radius defined by the length of one orc arm plus one sword. An Uruk-hai bounding over the uppermost three steps dropped with an arrow through its neck, and another coming over the parapet fell from sight with a gurgling cry. Legolas nocked his last arrow.

There were two or three elves left upon the wall, the small one among them, selling their lives as dearly as they could. But it would take a score of archers with full quivers to gain them any chance of escape, and there was nothing he could do for them. Enemies were pouring through the breach, up the stairs, over the parapet from ladders and siege towers. Gimli was still keeping them at bay— he was not shouting his count any longer— but any moment they would be overwhelmed. So would Aragorn. Legolas patiently held the feathers against his lips, waiting until the last instant to select his target from among far too many.

Aragorn, Tolo dad. I gaim aran ú-nestathar chery bain.

Aragorn looked over the edge, seized the top of a ladder, and rode it down with a frenzied cry, crushing orcs below him as he came down. Legolas loosed his final arrow into the fray above, then unsheathed knives and joined Gimli in clearing a path for him. The three with the dwarf last of all raced for the Hornburg, up the long stairs, along the narrow parapet clinging to the cliff at the base of the tower, and into the bailey. Doors and portcullis slammed down behind them, sealing the outer ring-wall.

The three hunters exchanged grim glances.

“Not lightly do the leaves of Lórien fall,” Legolas murmured, echoing something the Ranger had said during their long travels together.

There was a crash of breaking wood below them, and the stones beneath their feet shuddered. The causeway-gate was giving way. Aragorn gave a shout and charged down to the lower level, the courtyard behind the gate, where Théoden’s spearmen were doing all within their power to fend off the orcs from the splintered beams.

Gimli grumbled under his breath. “Curse his luck; you rabbits nearly left me behind back there.”

“The key is breathing,” Legolas told him.

The dwarf snorted and headed after Aragorn. 

When the elf heard the Dúnadan’s offer to take a stand before the gate until men could brace it, Legolas turned back to join the other defenders on the parapet overlooking the causeway. His friends would need a means back inside unless they meant to stand before the doors until they were slain. And if that was their intent, he would need a way down to them.

While searching for a stout rope, Legolas finally remembered where he had last glimpsed the woman on the wall.

It had been the Fellowship’s first night in the hidden heart of Lórien. She had been perched in the graceful spiral of a hanging staircase that was cradled in the branches of a mallorn tree on the far side of the glade.  Her knees were tucked against herself, arms and elven-cloak draped loosely around them; her face was in shadow. Every line of her body seemed to melt into the curve of the railings and the tree behind her, and if she’d had more height and grace, he might have mistaken her for one of the austere figures carved in wood that were suspended here and there in the forest.  She had been leaning forward, listening to the lament for Mithrandir as if she were breathing it, utterly engrossed in the haunting echoes of the singing trees. While he was taking note of her, she had suddenly glanced down as if searching for something, and he’d caught the glint of blue eyes. At the time he had taken her for an elf-maid. Now he had strange doubts.

They did not matter any longer.

Aragorn and Gimli were fighting for their lives some twenty feet below him, and his quiver was spent. Orcs were falling off the causeway on every side, and even the fighting Uruk-hai, monstrous giants compared to the goblins they had dealt with in the past, were loathe to close with the enraged dwarf and grim-handed son of kings. Down in the Coomb itself, Legolas could see heavy machines being wheeled forward, ballistas carrying giant iron hooks instead of bolts, and behind them the orcs were assembling siege-towers on the ground. The screams of enemies and the dying hammered the walls like great fists. Yet some men still lived to defend the Hornburg, and his task was keeping it that way.

He needed more arrows.

And yet all efforts were vain. Gimli and Aragorn had slain dozens before the gates were sealed. Legolas had hauled them to safety over the battlements, but that safety was short-lived. Uruk-hai filled the Deep, they covered the wall, and ladders and grappling hooks were thudding against the ramparts. Some overshot their mark and fell into the bailey, crashing down like the toss-stones of mountain giants, while others slammed into men and boys, striking them from the parapet with deadly force. Legolas, having gleaned damp arrows from the quiver of a slain archer, stood over the gate adding his share to the dwindling rain of bolts and spears. He managed to sever a cable that was being used to pull up one of the orc-laden siege-towers. But there were three others still coming when that one crashed full-length across the enemy host below, and in spite of the ragged cheer from the men on the ramparts, he might just have well have tried to harvest a field with a fishhook. Scant minutes later, the causeway gate had burst asunder, orcs were pouring over the battlements, and the last living defenders were racing for the doors to the inner keep. Legolas spent the dead man’s arrows covering their retreat.

So elves and men were bottled up in six-foot walls of stone. There was no way out of the inner keep and tower save through the caves, and from them only a few narrow tunnels wormed their way back into the hills. Such routes afforded scant hope, for there was little chance the orcs would not follow any who fled, once the doors of the Hornburg had given way. Théoden’s warriors set spears and swords aside and did their best to brace this final barrier. Elven archers stood behind them with bows trained between their shoulders, watching for any crack in the straining wood. Again and again, the doors that Aragorn had struggled to push open on his return now shuddered and boomed with the heavy blows of unseen enemies. The one ray of hope left was that the stairs and inner ring wall of the bailey thwarted the use of a battering ram in its narrow confines. Yet such contrivances of men could only delay, not deny the siege’s outcome. Helm’s Deep had been built as stoutly as the mountain on which it stood, but even the land could not hold back the sea when the seas rose.

At such an hour men despaired, and even the hearts of elves were grim and cold. Aragorn and Théoden and what few of the king’s household remained stood at the back of the darkened hall taking counsel, but there was little to debate. The king’s mind was already half with his son. He had come this far on love for his people, and now he could no longer pretend that he could defend them.

“Ride out with me,” Aragorn was urging, his voice clear and certain even over the din of the assault. “Ride out to meet them! Now is the hour for the Eorlingas to come forth behind the banner of their king. What was it you told me? ‘At least we shall make such an end as may be worth a song, if any are left to sing of it.’” His gaze shifted to the gray light filtering down through high narrow window-slits over the doors. Dawn was coming on.

Legolas straightened, the fierce resistance of his bowstring suddenly nothing in his hands. It was not his friend he heard speaking, but a lord of men. No, not only a leader, but an archer, with the whole of the Hornburg suddenly become for him a bow. Would Théoden let himself be pushed by the Ranger this time?

“If any are left,” Théoden echoed under his breath, quietly enough that perhaps only elves could hear it.

Somewhere beneath their feet were caves of breathtaking beauty, Gimli had said, glittering with hundreds of torches that played across silver-flecked stone pillars and wide pools of water. Those pools had been mirror-still since the world began, but they must have trembled often during the long night, when even the bones of the Hornburg shook. Whether or not their king rode forth, hundreds of women and children down there would soon die, even those with swords like Éowyn, listening to every thud and groan above them with grim helplessness. Outside the bodies of their kin and loved ones, many old or far too young, were piled among the corpses of enemies. The orcs would be hacking the bodies of the elves they hated. A few riders flying in the face of a storm would be worth little to any of these victims.

Legolas kept his eyes on the doors. The men had braced and buttressed them with long wooden benches and tables from the feast-hall, but between the gaps of makeshift beams, he could see cracks getting longer and wider. Soon his arrows would have a mark. There was a scrape at his elbow and the dwarf’s hoarse breathing; Gimli had returned from sharpening his axe.

“He’s right, my lord,” the dwarf said stoutly. “Better to meet them head-on than to be caught like an old badger in a trap.”

“Will you join the last ride of the Eorlingas, Master Dwarf?” the king asked. His men exchanged glances, shifted their feet.

There was a comfortingly familiar clink as Gimli patted his favored weapon. “No, but leave me a few orcs for sport, if you’ve any to spare. I will follow on foot, where I have room to swing my axe.”

Théoden raised his chin, following Aragorn’s gaze towards the high window. “Nay, Gimli son of Glóin,” the king said softly. “I have a different task for you.”

The doors broke and fell. Guttural cries of pent-up rage muffled the death-rattle of tortured wood and stone. The orcs burst into the king’s hall. At the far end waited Théoden, Aragorn, Legolas, Gamling and the chiefs of Edoras, all of them mounted on horses that fretted and stamped.

Forth Eorlingas!

Straight through the mass of astonished orcs they galloped, out into the bailey where the black banners of Saruman flapped over walls that no other foe had passed, down the wide stairs to the splintered gate and out, and into the column of orcs streaming up the causeway. The riders swept aside those in their path, slew and slew, although their swords made barely a dent in the much-thinned but still vast sea of orcs. Down the causeway they rode, seeking nothing save deaths well-earned. As Théoden led the charge, high above in the top of the tower, the ancient horn of Helm Hammerhand boomed out in a growing swell of thunder. Gimli was making the mountains sing a somber dirge for the last ride of the Rohirrim. Some of the orc-companies actually gave ground, not just before the ire of cornered prey suddenly turning upon its attacker, but fearing the horn itself. Helm! Helm is arisen! called the Rohirrim inside and outside of the keep. High overhead, the peaks of the mountains were cutting through the last wisps of cloud from the previous night’s storm.

Yet the banner of the king did not founder, and few deaths came to those who followed it. The causeway and the Deeping Coomb lay in gray shadow, but high above on the mountain’s limb a white rider was silhouetted against the pale golden dawn. Gandalf had returned. With him were Éomer and Erkenbrand and all the mounted warriors of the Third Mark and the Westfold. With an answering shout they poured down like a river unleashed, sweeping upon the black host. Orcs cowered in the blinding light of the Grey Pilgrim, grey no longer. Caught between the vice of Théoden and Gandalf, Éomer and Aragorn, those orcs who were not slain by sword and spear were trampled flat.

Helm’s Deep had held.

In the light of a day few hoped to see, the survivors searched for those who had not. Éomer’s men were relieving the sentries. The night’s garrison had retired to the keep to sleep, bind wounds, or die in the arms of loved ones in the caves below. The old king slept in the Hornburg, his dreams less troubled than they had been in years, despite the blood of his people on the stones outside.  Aragorn and even Gimli had gone down to well-earned rest.

Legolas was walking on the ruined battlements, gathering arrows and looking for elves. Most of the work of clearing away the wreckage was being done by the women of Rohan.  He saw few who wept openly as they bore the dead away one by one. He crossed the garth slowly, picking his way around rubble, discarded weapons and missiles, and hideous twisted forms of orcs. Few but fair among them were strewn his own folk, foresters who but for last night might have lived all the ages of the world. Many had been mangled, hacked, half-eaten in the brief time that orcs had gained this ground. The grievous sight of them lodged itself somewhere in Legolas’ heart and spread out within him, cool sorrow becoming a part of his bones. 

The living Galadrim were here also, somberly gathering up their comrades. Some of the women were helping, although they gave their guests silent and fearful glances. The women bore away weapons, armor, what orcs they could move, and any men that had fallen from the keep’s walls high above, making room for the elves but careful not to touch them. Legolas favored those he passed with a kind glance.

He began to sing quietly when he reached the small company of elves searching the ruins of the Deeping Wall. Humans in the garth below halted where they were, dazed, and cast about for the source. Legolas’ folk nodded to him as he came among them, some taking up the lament. Song born in starlight before the rising of the sun now rose from the Deep, and the Hornburg shivered with a music very different from that of horns. 

One by one Lórien’s fallen were found and borne away on the cloaks of their comrades. Haldir was discovered last of all, and only when a great orc-banner and a few shields had been flung down from the wall. He lay full-length along the groove of the parapet’s wall, with eyes closed and hands folded over his sword; a cloak from one of his fallen neighbors had been cast over him. Nothing marred him but the wounds that had killed him. Timdaur, the grim elf who now led the elves in Haldir’s place, questioned everyone closely, but no one knew who had done this.  Aragorn had barely fled in time, as Legolas well knew, and he and his two friends had been the last to reach the keep alive. 

It was a grievous moment, for Rúmil Haldir’s younger brother had come with them, and knelt a long time beside his sibling. The whisper of Haldir’s name and then a hush spread out across the Deep, when the Galadrim raised their leader and began to descend the stairs. Rúmil led them. Legolas and Timdaur walked behind. But as they stepped around an orc with one of his own arrows buried in the shoulder-joint, Legolas remembered something. Number thirty-five, his last Lórien-arrow.

“Timdaur,” he whispered. “Aphadathon— nad nu hen.

The other elf paused and glanced down at the massive Uruk sprawled face-first in the act of coming over the parapet. He nodded to Legolas silently and left him there.

Legolas twisted the arrow free and studied the Uruk-hai sprawled over the battlement with the dispassionate scrutiny of a hunter sizing up a carcass to be butchered.  A goblin he could throw one-handed, but the creatures of Saruman were of a different order from the vermin of the mountains.  And he did not dare simply roll it aside.  

Crouching, the elf began to work his hands under its bulk, seeking leverage.  An older woman hurried over to offer what help she could, supporting some of the weight until he could get a knee under the brute’s chest and and heave upwards.  It tipped over the parapet with a rattle of armor, striking the base of the wall with a distant crash which echoed the din of the previous night’s battle.  The sound also muffled the gasp of his impromptu helper when she glanced down and caught sight  of the fighter who had been pinned beneath it.

The slight figure was pressed face-first against the joint of the wall and walkway, left arm flung over her head, huddled like a mouse cowering under a root when the hawk flies past.  Her sword, bearing the subtle curves and grace of elven blades though lacking decoration or device, lay under her right elbow.  Her mail was in a sorry state, crusted with gore from the battle, and black blood stiffened the gray cloak of the Galadrim, twin to the one Legolas wore.  Her pale matted hair spilled out from thick braids once rolled beneath the rim of her helm, now falling in an unkempt mass around her ears and hiding them.  Even so, it did not take an expert eye to see she was mortal pewter, not elvish silver: she was lithe but not lean, sturdy and compact in her build; and her features were neat yet a little too broad to be called “elven” even by humans who didn’t know the true meaning of the term.  

The gray-haired woman knelt beside her, restrained in her dismay as she looked the stranger over.  She would not touch the girl until Legolas nodded permission.  She handled the elven-mail as little as possible, nor was she merely trying to avoid the orc’s foul blood, for her frock and arms already had a few black smears from the morning’s work.  When she turned the young woman over, she was due for another shock.  The opaque glance she levelled in the elf’s direction was almost accusatory.  Silently, the elder worked the clasp of the girl’s cloak open, resting fingertips against the side of her neck.  The woman’s lips pressed together into a thin line.  With gentle efficiency, she began to gather the fallen fighter’s cloak around her.  Legolas sighed and laid a long hand across one dirt-stained cheek.  

“Wait,” he said sharply.

Startled, the one he had addressed yanked her hands away.  She watched intently as the elf probed for tangible signs of injury, cradling the smaller woman’s head and rocking it gently from side to side, searching his way down her spine, testing ribs with his fingers as best he could through scale mail.  Her face was cool, but not as cold as the stones on which she lay.  He frowned, pondering.  This seemed a small matter for Aragorn, but he did not wish to disturb the Ranger after so many toils.  Hearing her shallow breaths change from faint to certain, Legolas realized there might be no need after all.  He opened his hand in a mute request towards the waterskin the older woman was carrying.

Brows knitting, she readily handed it across.  Listening carefully, Legolas began to lave the stranger’s neck and throat, feeling the air grow chill as the wind from the mountains brushed against his wet fingers.  Recalling the glimpse from that night in Lórien, as he dabbed the blood and grime away, Legolas decided to try another remedy that had nothing to do with herb-lore.  He cast his mind back to an old ballad of Beleriand which the wood-elves still sang along the northern fences of his father’s realm.

Ir geil thinner Fíriel tirn-ed:
I fuin thind gwannol.
I aurlinn, aew goll, palan-
Nallant gaun lim a maeg.
Gelaidh dhuir, minuial ’ael
In emlin gliriel.
Gwaew athrant, i ring a lain
Trî laiss dhyll reniant.

Firiel looked out at three o clock;
the grey night was going;
far away a golden cock
clear and shrill was crowing.
The trees were dark, and the dawn pale,
the waking birds were cheeping.
a wind moved cool and frail
through dim leaves creeping.

Na chenneth tirn i ’lîn ’alol
Al lû calad and ’ael
Bo talf a lass; bo thâr ennas
I vîdh vith hilivren.
Or phain tail thín fain athranner
A dad bendrath tinner,
Revianner cabel trî thâr
I garel pân ’wing mîdh.

She watched the gleam at window grow
til the long light was shimmering
on land and leaf, on grass below
grey dew was glimmering.
Over the floor her white feet crept,
down the stair they twinkled
through the grass they dancing stepped
all with dew besprinkled.

Taeg hammad thín gâr viriath;
Norn e dad i hîr.
Be dulu garel delch dathren
A tirn i nen thinnol.
Heledir dannant dad be harn
Vi aglar thlûn dannol...

Her gown had jewels upon its hem,
as she ran down to the river
and leaned upon a willow-stem
and watched the water quiver.
A kingfisher plunged down like a stone
in a blue flash falling...

(Note: The song is actually a poem by Tolkien, “The Last Ship”; my Elvish is a loose translation of it adapted to maintain meter.)


His hunch proved true; the stranger’s breathing began to quicken at the sound of his voice.  Legolas stopped when he noticed that her eyes were squeezed shut, no longer simply closed.  She gave a quiet sigh when he fell silent.

“Mandos,” she muttered.  “Well, at least the music’s good.”

The old woman beside him stirred like a sleepwalker when the girl spoke.

He chuckled.  “You are somewhat astray, Lady.  That king’s hall lies many leagues away.”

There was a glitter beneath her eyelashes; she was peering at the elf as if trying to make out a falcon’s silhouette against the sun.  When the other woman started to reach around her to help her up, she shook her head emphatically.

“Can you move?”  he asked, echoing the concern of the human woman beside him.

The stranger countered his question with a hoarse whisper.  “Haldir?  Gwaith nín?”

Bemused by her choice of words, Legolas replied,  “‘Your people’ have taken him down to the citadel.  He is defiled by no hands, thanks to yours.”

“Mortal as they are.”  A wistful smile touched the corners of her lips.  It was just as well he had elven-hearing, for her voice was nearly as faint as her breath.   Yet Legolas had the sense that this was due more to habit than hurt.  There was something disconcertingly familiar about her phrasing.  

Im law charnannen,” she answered belatedly.

“She is unhurt,” he echoed, translating for the older woman who was watching this exchange.   The local paused, eying him doubtfully, then inclined her head with a ironic smile that was far more intelligible than the muddled curtsey she gave him before returning to her chores.  She left the waterskin lying where he had set it down.  

On the other surviving portion of the wall, murmurs between a few other women drifted across the gap, and  Legolas caught Éowyn’s name peppering the conversation.  Evidently his discovery had not gone unnoticed.

The young swordswoman, meanwhile, had braced an elbow against the stones and pushed herself to a sitting position, squinting and shielding her eyes with a fist as she scanned the blood-spattered parapet where Haldir had fallen.  Nearby was a heap of chipped swords, helms, quivers and ripped cloaks, gilded bows whose graceful sweeping horns were twisted or snapped, and the bronze leaves of elven-mail that lay scattered like shed scales of dragons, glittering in the sun.  The girl’s shoulders drooped.  Her face was quiet, but it was the calm of a soul struggling to keep pain at arm’s length.

Legolas held the waterskin out to her.

She turned her head and favored him with a surprised smile.  “Why, I should hide under orcs more often.”  She took it and drank sparingly, as if conserving it for a journey.  Then her gaze drifted over the wreckage of the battle, out across the Coomb and back to the Deep, up to the tower shining like a tall spur of flint in the pale sun.  Nothing down here was untouched by the debris from the explosion and the bodies and weapons of the fallen, but above the keep the mountains sparkled, massive and snow-capped and untroubled by the goings-on at their knees. “So,” she said, tucking a knee against herself, “What was the final count?”

Legolas regarded her steadily.  “Helm’s Deep stands.  But we lost—”

She drew a sharp breath and held up her hands to fend off his answer.  “Too many, I know.  I wasn’t speaking of that.”

The elf tilted his head.  “What, then?”

She leaned towards the inner side of the wall, miming with a finger the soaring flight of an arrow coming up from below and sailing past her shoulder.  She gave him a shrewd look.  “I trust the prince bested the dwarf.”

“Forty-one and forty-two,” he replied, amused.  “I lost.”

Blue eyes flew open at the elf’s admission.  “Strange wizardry!”  she rasped.  Her features softened.  “Ah, but he is Gimli Lockbearer, isn’t he?  Gulaur daur vin ent Galadriel.”  

Legolas shrugged, hopping to his feet with a faint rattle of arrows at his shoulder.  “My bow is also a gift of the Lady.”  

The small woman pursed her lips.  “Then,” she insisted doggedly, “I know I should not gainsay my betters, but I fear you have miscounted.”  With that, she set a hand upon the wall and hauled herself to her feet with less grace.  “But I am sure Thranduil’s son has more important responsibilities than answering the questions of a fíriel who overslept.  Thank you, caun fael, for fetching me the sun.”  

He raised an eyebrow.  “It was no trouble, my lady.  But as for answers, is that really your name?”

She reddened.  “Oh!  No, it’s Haleth.  But I wasn’t mocking your singing, my lord.  That’s what the Galadhrim call me.”  

He studied her thoughtfully.  “I see.  Well, Haleth, I am going down to join them, if you care to follow.”

“I—” she paused, looked over her shoulder.  She trailed off as her gaze fell upon the castoffs of Lórien, waiting to be carted away like common refuse.  Haleth struggled to find another smile.  “They will need their little fíriel to straighten and sort arrows, as always.  But I think I will drink the sun for a while first, unless our orders are to march soon.”  

“Not that I have heard.”  Legolas observed that in spite of the lightness of her speech, there were tears at war with her eyes, and that she was in danger of losing the battle.  Having come to know some of the peculiarities of mortal pride, the elf simply nodded a polite farewell and headed for the stairs.  

As he descended, he saw her turn and pace slowly towards the jumbled pile.  The woman stooped, took up a long arrow whose swan-feathers gleamed like the snow on the mountains, and turned it slowly in her fingers, head bowed.  Just as he dropped below the level of the parapet, a soft elvish prayer drifted down to him, jerking his memory back to the eaves of Fangorn and that moment when it seemed that he and his companions had doubly failed, first losing Boromir, and then the hobbits they had chased halfway across Rohan to save.

Hiro hyn hîdh vi Valannor.”  

With those words, at last, the elf realized what it was about Haleth’s speech that had been nagging at him. Her voice matched her face: it was the plain, broad accent of Rhovanion, spoken daily in the open-air markets of Dale and the feast-halls of the Beornings.  The rhythm of her phrasing, however, was markedly elvish, and it spilled over even into the common tongue.  It was not Mirkwood’s passionate beat nor the rolling eloquence of Imladris.  Like yarn from a spinning wheel, her words unfolded at the stately pace of Lórien, whose inhabitants lived and spoke in a different world.  It was like the stalking of a kitten, unconsciously imitating the measured footfalls of a lion.

A few hours later, Legolas sat upon a stack of shields in the armory, reporting to Aragorn all that he had noted in the battle and after.  Timdaur was there too, standing mutely by the door with arms folded.  The new captain was a very different sort of elf from Haldir, grim and wary like Legolas’ own father; his hair was silver and his features were sharp and lean as the prow of a ship.  Gimli, meanwhile, was quite unaware how much irritation he was causing their guest, sitting propped in a corner fine-tuning his axe with a whetstone.  Aragorn slouched by a rack of spears facing his friends.

“...  and I guess they have some two thousands all told, including Éomer’s men,” Legolas concluded.

Gimli whistled.  “I thought Éomer brought two thousand with him!  Gandalf herded them back here none too soon!”

Aragorn took a long draw from his pipe as he digested Legolas’ account and Timdaur’s even more painful news:  a fifth of the Galadhrim remained.  “And we cannot take even two thousand, for the people of Rohan still need a garrison.”

Legolas was silent, although he suspected that any garrison they could muster would not be enough to defend the Hornburg against another attack.  

Gimli looked up from his axe.  “Do you think Rohan will ride to Gondor’s aid?”  

Aragorn raised his head like a horse straining at the chalk-line before a race.  They knew he yearned to be in Minas Tirith already, to prove or fail all the hopes that had been invested in him.  “Théoden will ride,” he said.  “The muster at Edoras has already begun.  But it will take many days for the Riddermark to set out in force.”  

“They say Gondor is not yet besieged,” the dwarf pointed out gruffly.

Aragorn smiled.  “I cannot see the White City from here, Gimli.  But the beacon-fires are not yet lit.  There is hope.”  He turned to Timdaur, expression sobering again.  “So that is where we stand, my lord.  You now know the mettle of men, and we know beyond all dread what sacrifice the Wood has given to secure the muster of Rohan.  It may well be the arrow that finds the chink in Sauron’s strategies.  If you mean to return home and look to Lórien’s defenses, you will go with our deepest gratitude.  I wish I could do or say more.”

Timdaur shook his head, face grave as one of the carved faces of the Argonath.  “Nay, Lord Aragorn; the Alliance’s obligation is not dissolved by a single skirmish.  Sauron must be defeated for all Ages, and it is for you to lead this struggle.  You need weapons that will not break.  Haldir understood this, as do I.”

Gimli let out a quiet huff of respect.

Aragorn for his part did not waste more time with empty courtesies.  “Very well.  Do any more elf-hosts come from the Wood or Rivendell?”

“Lord Elrond and the Lady were taking thought to that when we marched,” stated Timdaur, “but I do not know the issue of their counsel.”

The Ranger rubbed a finger over the white tree embossed upon the vambrace he had kept as a memento of Boromir.  “I do not think horses can be found for all of you, although I know the Riddermark will provide you with every one they have.”

The elf nodded.  “Then we will take what horses the Rohirrim can spare, and the rest under Rúmil will bear our wounded back to Lórien ere the lands are closed against us.”

Aragorn sought his eyes.  “Please tell him this.  For what little it is worth, his brother’s name is the first among elves to be woven into the songs of this land, and will be remembered as long as Rohan stands.”

Timdaur bowed.

When he had departed, Aragorn turned back to his friends.  “Gandalf means to pay a visit to Saruman before we take the road east.”

“Is that wise?”  Gimli asked, astonished.  “Does he think Isengard emptied of every orc?  And will Sauron wait while we toss pebbles at the walls of Orthanc?”

Legolas said nothing, but the dwarf clearly echoed the elf’s thought.  He fixed keen eyes upon the man.

“Gandalf has some errand there, and bade me bring the king.  I am sure there is good reason.”  Aragorn closed his fist tightly over his sword-hilt.

“There are the hobbits,” Legolas observed quietly.

“Gandalf said they were safe,” said Gimli doubtfully, “although he did not say how or where.”

“That is an answer I would like before we leave this land,” the elf murmured.

“And I,” said Aragorn.  “but for them we dare not tarry.  Still, Gandalf is right: we must know what strength Isengard has left, before we abandon Rohan to its fate.  Théoden must order his realm as best he can ere he departs.  And it is better that we ride east in firm knowledge, at least, of the dangers at one end of the road.”  

They found the answer to this and much else in Isengard, but as Gimli had said they could not tarry long.  The parley with Saruman had gone as well as could be hoped.  The Three Hunters had finally overtaken their quarry; the hobbits had weathered their ordeal with the orcs better than humans might in such circumstances.  King Théoden had also learned of allies he did not know existed:  the ancient guardians of the forest, roused to wrath against Isengard’s furnaces.  The ents, left out of all his designs, had proved to be Saruman’s undoing.  They had torn through his outer defenses like the sea through a sandcastle, flooding the ring of Isengard with the river it was named for, and slaying every orc.  They would have slain him too, but the tower of Orthanc had withstood even their rootlike fingers and toes, which could crack ordinary stone in minutes.  All the surround was reduced to rubble, steaming and bubbling under lingering waters; ents kept patient vigil on the tower that was Saruman’s self-chosen prison.  Théoden could ride to Gondor with assurance that no threat was left from that quarter.

First, however, he and his company were returning to  the Hornburg.  They had camped briefly in the foothills south of Isengard, but  near midnight their slumber was broken by the evil voices of wraiths skimming the treetops, flying towards Orthanc.  Doubtless they were seeking tidings of Rohan’s defeat.  Very soon, the Dark Lord would realize that one of his claws had snapped.  Gandalf had gone immediately and in haste, taking one of the hobbits with him; as so often the wizard was racing towards peril on the wings of the storm.  Théoden would follow him east as soon as Rohan’s strength could be mustered, accompanied by Aragorn and the elves of Lórien.  

The tides of the world were converging upon the White City.  Those who knew Minas Tirith could not help but remember its perilous position, a spur of defiance at the far end of the mountains from Helm’s Deep, separated from Mordor’s towering gray crags by a river and fifteen leagues, or a few miles at most if the enemy gained the opposite shore.

“Now,” Aragorn confided to his friends as they jogged near the king, “I wish I were truly Thorongil, as they used to call me.”

“What’s that?” Gimli grumbled, bouncing along behind the elf with a stout grip on the back of the saddle.  “You pick up nicknames and elf-trinkets like a raven lining his nest.”

The elf spoke clearly over the swish of wind.  “The Eagle of the Star.  What need have you for him?”

“That I might have friendship with eagles.”  Dim shapes of the world rushed past them, and all was bounding movement as they tore across the Gap, but the man’s eyes remained still and fixed on the unbroken silhouette of mountain peaks stretching eastward.  “Alas, only Gandalf can call the wind-lords at need.”

“There is time,” Legolas reassured him, “or Mithrandir would not have risked dabbling his toes in the puddles of Isengard.”

Merry was riding before Aragorn, and had been listening eagerly to Gimli’s tales of their adventures in Rohan, at least until he nodded off in the saddle.  Aragorn had a hand on his shoulder to keep him from slipping.  Now the hobbit stirred awake as his friends’ voices floated around him.  “How far is it to Minas Tirith?” he asked anxiously.

The man sighed.  “Over a week’s ride, although Gandalf and Pippin may reach it sooner on Shadowfax.”

Meanwhile, Théoden had been deep in conversation with Éomer since they had crossed the Fords of Isen in the coldest hour of the night.  Ten days ago, many men of Rohan had perished there in battle, while their king sat withered and witless in Edoras under the insidious leechcraft of a mole in the pay of Saruman.  It was that battle which had cost the king’s son his life.  So when the Rohirrim passed the circle of spears and the mound of Théodred’s fallen warriors, although their need for haste was great, the king had halted in the darkness with his riders gathered around him.  “And yet Saruman lives,” Théoden had said finally, rousing himself.  Afterwards he had spoken little, pressing forward with a pace that was grueling even for younger men.

Listening to his captains tell him of the battle at the fords, Théoden had been too preoccupied to notice his guests for some while.  But abruptly he broke in upon the conversation between Aragorn and his companions.  “Thorongil.”  The king turned his head, regarding the  the ranger warily.  “There was a foreigner by that name in Rohan when I was a lad, and he served my father for a while.  Then he disappeared.  Afterwards rumor came that he had won great renown away south in Gondor, beating back the pirates of Umbar.”

“I have heard those rumors, my lord.” Aragorn’s teeth flashed in a crooked grin.  However, just as abruptly, his smile vanished.  “Legolas, what is it?”

The elf was sitting straight and tall in the saddle, keen eyes scanning the mountains ahead of them as if searching for eagles.  

“Dreaming with his eyes open again,” the dwarf muttered at the elf’s shoulder.  

“I do not know,” replied Legolas thoughtfully.  “It is like smoke, but it does not rise, and it fills the Deeping Coomb.”

“What?” The king laid a hand on his sword-hilt, and Éomer on his right rose in the stirrups, straining in vain to make out a hint of whatever Legolas had seen.

Even as the elf spoke, from afar came a sound more felt than heard, a low thrum that  beat on their ears like air through a bird’s wings.  It was so faint that, had the sound not been seared forever into their memories by that fateful dawn two days ago, few would have recognized the horn of Helm Hammerhand rippling across the wide plains of Rohan.  The Rohirrim cried out in dismay.  

Aragorn nudged Brego a few paces forward and turned into the king’s path.  “Wait, my lord.  I do not think it is the fume of battle.”

The riders muttered to one another, not all of them looking south.  It was the third time that the ragged stranger had implicitly challenged their king, and although he had proved his worth in more than arms at Helm’s Deep, even Éomer was looking at him somewhat askance.  

“No,” Legolas declared, oblivious to the jostlings of men.  His eyes shone.  “It is a gray fog, as if the mist of the forests were spilling out into the world.  There are shapes moving within it, and they are tall.”

“Ents!” exclaimed Merry.  “That’s the Huorns, Strider, just as I was telling you!  They are the wild woods that Treebeard warned us about.”

Théoden’s hands relaxed upon his reins, and he gazed out across the gray lands before them.  Aragorn dropped back to his former position on the king’s left side, opposite Éomer.

“More sorcery,” the old king muttered.   “And why? Did Gandalf not say the tree-shepherds take little interest in the affairs of men?”

“Little,” Aragorn concurred, resting his fingers in Merry’s hair, “but I think their eyes have been opened by others.  They are watching your northern borders now, Théoden, not just for the sake of the trees.  In this case, however, it is not your affairs they are minding, but those of the Golden Wood.”

Théoden followed the ranger’s gaze to the aloof elven captain riding in the second rank.  Timdaur had come with them to witness the parley with their enemy on behalf of Lórien, but had not said a word during the journey.  Nor did he speak now.  His eyes, however, were fixed upon the same patch of darkness that the Mirkwood elf could see.

The living shadow grew more distinct as night’s gloom began to recede.  Éomer counselled that they should go a little out of their way to avoid it, but Théoden was in no mood to move aside for anything, certainly not trees within his own borders.  Beside the mouth of the Deeping Coomb they drew even with it, and the rushing of wind in branches, the indistinct tramp of huge feet, the groaning and swaying of great trunks were like creaking ships moored in a rising sea.  The riders of Théoden reined close together, afraid and awed, as the shrouded host passed them only a few yards away on their left.  There were twinkles of light within it, and occasionally a glint of metal, yet it seemed as if an enchantment had fogged their eyes.  At most they could make out indistinct forms of broad trunks and striding figures, some giant-sized, others no taller than men.

But Timdaur leapt down and strode to the very edge of the gloom, calling out in a loud voice.  “Suilad, Onodrim a Galadhrim! Man siniath?”

To the wonder of most of the observers, the rushing darkness slowed nearly to a standstill at his hail.  Stepping out from the shadows came a mail-clad figure, followed by a slender ent whose white bark gleamed like the moon in the light of the lantern the elf carried.  It was Rúmil.  He inclined his head to the riders and the king, then turned to address his kinsman in a low voice.  

Éomer came forward, face grave.  “Rúmil of Lórien.  We bid you safe journey, or what safety you can find in our troubled lands.  Is there anything you need?”

Timdaur spoke in the younger elf’s ear, translating, then conveyed the curt reply.  “Nothing save speed, horsemaster.”

Éomer raised his mailed glove in salute and withdrew.  Timdaur laid both hands on the fair elf’s shoulders in farewell.  Then Rúmil stepped back into the shadows with the ent and was lost from sight as the last of the column passed by.

Legolas was watching the trees raptly, and in fact only Gimli’s growl kept him from riding headlong into the sweeping shadows.  

Éomer gave Gimli a wry look.  “Few mortals escape her nets, as I told you, Master Dwarf.  Nay, do not reach for your axe!  I begin to see why sometimes it is not so ill to be one of the fishes.”

The sun was in the sky, but not yet upon the land when they came back into the vale of the Deeping Coomb.  Some of the men cried out and pointed as they drew near the fortress.  The wall was being repaired, but its hastily-hewn blocks were the least of the changes that met their astonished eyes.

There was a thin ribbon of silver on the gray cliff behind the Hornburg.  Trickles of melting snow were what gave the Deeping Stream its voice, but there had not been a waterfall tumbling down to meet it before, nor a small round lake further back in the Deep on the lefthand side,  nor a forest of slender white  birches clustered in a wide ring on one of the lower slopes above the lake.  When the riders halted with their king a league out from the causeway, they could hear a music of falling water and the untroubled voice of the Deeping Stream, its bed now as clean and clear as if orc feet had never fouled it.

All traces of foes, their armor, their weapons, and their machines of war had vanished from the gravel-flats before the walls.  By the foot of the causeway, there was a great mound topped by the spears and banners of Rohan standing like sentinels in the gray dawn.  The riders did not sing, as they often did upon returning, nor murmur the names of those who lay beneath the fresh green turves.  In silence they rode up the causeway, and the hooves of the horses rang loudly in the stillness.  But horns sounded on the battlements, and Théoden entered the fortress amidst great rejoicing, for only now did his people have leisure to celebrate their king’s deliverance from the turncoat wizard’s curse.  

As they dismounted and retired to their quarters within the keep, his company heard whispers and rumors of a shadow that had come in the night and left the Deep changed.  So Théoden had one errand first, before he slept.  With Éowyn his niece leading the way up a path that no other human feet had dared tread so far, he climbed to the green shoulder of the mountain where the young forest had sprung up overnight.  In its midst was a long grassy mound sprinkled with countless white and yellow flowers.  Saplings of birches were planted around and over the great barrow, their new green buds furled in promise of spring.  There was no stone or marker to indicate who lay buried there or how many.  There was no need.  Harpers in the keep were already making songs for the elves as well as for the heroes of Rohan.  Haudh in-Edhil, they were calling it, using a language few had known three days ago.  Some were even calling the smaller mound before the causeway Haudh en-Firiath.  

“Westu hal,” Théoden prayed, staring up at the snowdrops that winked in the first shafts of sunlight.  “Ferthu.”  And the king wept.

Legolas was finally resting too, in the manner of his kind.  He had scaled the slopes behind the tower for a closer look at the waterfall, and had found an old watch-post tucked against the cliff.  It was little more than a ledge of hard-packed earth, damp now from the spray drifting up from the tiny cascade as it came tumbling down.  There the elf could survey the keep and the tower, garth and battlements, the Coomb and the Deep, and yet stand alone and undisturbed.  He stood in that high place with thought turned inward and outward wandering the paths of dream and open sky.  Now and again he sang, and when his voice drifted down to the men in the bailey repairing the gates, their hands and faces would go slack, the weight of heavy timbers forgotten. They whispered to one another that Helm’s Deep was under a spell from the Golden Wood.

Legolas’ thoughts came back to waking, roused by a sound at his back.  Brows furrowed, he turned swiftly and found a small figure seated on a rocky ledge not far below where he stood.  It was Haleth.  Cheek propped on one arm, which was wrapped around a small spur of rock, she seemed asleep.  But he knew she had not been there long.

“That is no safe place to doze,” he chided.

She stirred and looked up.  “I might say the same,” she observed wryly.  “But not to an elf.”

He looked her over.  She wore no mail now, only a fresh gray cloak and the garb of Lórien; he could not see whether she bore any wounds of note worse than a crushing bruise spanning the side of her face.  Her hair was combed and gathered at the nape of her neck, still covering her ears; its color was the pale brown of fallen beech-leaves.  Humans would call her rounded features “earnest”, but the stubborn jaw and short nose made her ill-favored by elven standards.  And yet there was something of them in her pale blue eyes, which were clear and untroubled now.

“I heard you from below,” she confessed.  “I wanted to be sure it was your voice this time, and not some Vala bidding me quit the world.”

“You were hurt,” the elf stated, half a question.

“Well, I shall think twice again before using Uruk-hai as a blanket,” Haleth said cheerfully.  She stretched and straightened, as much as the precarious spot would allow.  “Somewhat scuffed around the edges, my lord.  An elf would not feel these few scrapes and bruises at all.”

“You are not elf.  And I thought you would be returning to Lórien with your company.”

Her eyes twinkled.  “My company are elves.  Am I not one of them?  You speak in riddles, Prince Thranduilion.”

“Legolas,” he corrected her.

She raised an eyebrow but acquiesced, or at least attempted it.  “Laegelas? Surely, you are not—”

He chuckled.  “No, Greenleaf, but as the wood-elves say it.”

She looked even more perplexed, but also amused.  “Now how can I call you that?  Haldir’s brothers are wroth with me whenever I use their Silvan speech!  ‘Not so familiar, fíriel, or we shall test your woodcraft by tying you upside-down to the highest tree.’”

He searched her face closely, but if there was resentment behind her words he could not see it.  “You are the riddle.”

With a short laugh, she reached up and pulled herself with a hop onto the ledge beside him.  “No, I carry no blood of Númenor, no great hope of elves and men,” she said lightly.  The contrast between Lórien’s unhurried phrasing and the merriment in her manner was disconcerting.  “I am not like those heroes with whom you travel, Legolas.  I am a daughter of humble men.”

“Then how do you come to be in the service of Lothlórien?”  Legolas asked, crouching down on one knee to speak with her.  “I have not heard that the Galadrim take Men for march-wardens.”

“Ask the Rohirrim,” she replied with a snort.  “They call my queen a witch.  ‘Few mortals escape her nets’, they say, and shun the Golden Wood.”

Legolas fixed intent eyes on her and waited patiently.

“I am a wanderer, my lord,” she said at last, yielding to his gaze, “a daughter of the woodmen driven out when Dol Guldur’s shadow grew again.”  She grinned her way past some old sorrow, having the rare pleasure of catching an elf by surprise.  “We fled to Ithilien seeking kin, but found it abandoned save for the watch-wardens of Gondor.  My brother joined their company and bade me cower in their city of stone, but that was not to my liking!  I knew some of your songs— rough though they are in the woodmen’s tongue— and I had caught a glimpse of gold when we took Anduin south.  I had never stopped looking over my shoulder.  So I kept chasing songs until I found my way there, and in.  Among the Galadhrim I have learned how to move, how to use what strength I have.”

Legolas listened to her with a part of his mind, the rest bent to watch her closely.  It could not be all the tale.  How had she earned the right to stay, let alone to serve?  And age sat very lightly indeed on one who did not bear the blood of Númenor.  But he read no deceit in her eyes.  There was, after all, a power in Lórien elves knew but did not name, and he had seen for himself how it held the currents of the outside world at bay.

“You learned well, my lady,” Legolas observed.  “But you do not sing.”

Haleth ducked her head: he had touched a nerve.  “I am mortal,” she said.  “My voice betrays me.  But I listen.”

“So I have seen.”

The chill wind gusting off the mountains had the space between them for a moment.  The elf watched her steadily, and the human stared down at the reflection of the green mound cupped in the lake below.  There was birch bark in her hair.

“I think,” she whispered, letting her guard down for a moment, “I was allowed to enter the wood.  But only so far, and then I was hard pressed to give a good account of how I came there.”  She gave an obscure smile.  “I passed the test.”

Legolas’ brow relaxed.  “Ah,” he said.  “That answers half the riddle.”

She dropped her chin to her hand, watching him shyly out of the corners of her eyes.  “Legolas,” she murmured after a pause.  “Have you ever seen the Golden Wood in spring?”

The elf shook his head.  “Long have my folk been sundered from our kin in Lothlórien.  Until now I had only seen it through the same songs you have heard.”

“Oh, but you must,” she urged, face suddenly animated.  “The leaves above are gold, and the leaves on the ground are gold, and the trunks between are almost silver.  The yellow blossoms on the boughs catch the clear light like tiny suns.  Sometimes at dawn, with the new day shining through them, I catch a glimpse of Laurelin long gone.  And when the new buds come— elo, little green jewels!  I can’t tell you of them, for I can’t sing.”

He smiled.  “You love the Golden Wood.”

“’How could I not?”  Haleth blushed.  “If Valinor is fairer still, I know why Men may not go there.  The joy would kill us.”

The elf laughed.  “And there is the other half of the riddle.  Now I see why Celeborn lets you stay.”

Her lips twitched with a flash of gratitude.  “A gift I try to honor.”

Legolas rose again and looked north and a little east, shielding his eyes.  Far and dim beyond the murky green of Fangorn he could see a hint of fallow gold.  “I shall have to come there another spring to see your golden nest.”

She turned her face up towards him, yearning and only a small hint of envy in her eyes.  “Do you think it will fade?  Sometimes the elves sing of Lórien as if it were already a memory.”

“I cannot tell.  But the world is changing, my lady.”

“The world always changes!” Haleth said fiercely.  “No season is the same.  But spring returns.”

Legolas smiled at her stubbornness.  “You may not carry the blood of Númenor, Haleth, but you carry hope.  Do you ride to Gondor?”

“If any horse can be spared.”

Legolas nodded.  “Then come; let us find one for you.”  He set a hand on the lip of the rock and went down first.  Unbroken she might be, but he had noticed the catch in her movements that two nights’ rest had not mended.  This small leaf from Lórien would not fall while he was there.

The horses had been turned loose in a hanging valley to graze.  A slanting apron of snow hugged the northeastern curve of the slopes that cradled the rolling meadow, watering its rich mats of purple and white alpine flowers. The noonday sun was warm, drawing up spirals of mist from the snow, yet the air had a crisp, biting clarity, carrying the wild spare scent of junipers and stunted firs growing on the slopes above. Here, in this sheltered haven above the keep and the lake, warhorses and farm animals grazed side by side. A few of the most high-spirited were wheeling and churning up the broad ribbon of snow as if cavorting in the shallows fringing a lake. One great lordly shape flashed before them all, gray and shimmering against the gleaming white.

Haleth stopped in her tracks as they stepped out from the birches on the new track leading up into the valley. “What is that?” she asked in a hushed voice.

“They call them horses,” Legolas deadpanned. “There are a good number of them in this country.”

“Wood-elf!” she scolded, plucking a twig of birch that was caught behind her ear and chucking it at him. “I shall have to start calling you Laegelalaith.”

Legolas sidestepped absently; it was too quiet here for laughter. “His name is Shadowfax. I do not know how the line of Nahar came to this country, but I suppose if any men were to earn their trust it would be the Rohirrim. They call such creatures mearas. Mithrandir rides him.”

A few shouts and high voices greeted them as they came over the lip of the trail, for there were a number of youths keeping an eye on their family’s chief wealth, the horses. Most were perched on outcrops or raised hummocks scattered around the fringes of the valley; one or two were mounted and moving among the herd. There was also a cluster of younger children playing on the boggy banks of a little stream, building tiny walls and the keep in miniature, apparently unphased by the cold meltwaters. Haleth stumbled as she and Legolas passed them by. Her attention had been diverted by an urchin who seemed especially adept at getting covered in mud, and was evidently more interested in making little pools than the walls that held them; she had quite a collection of tiny lakes and spillways already.

Legolas gave Haleth a keen glance, which she returned with a hushed, “Children. It’s strange to see them.”

The elf walked slowly, giving her time to find firmer ground where his own feet made no prints at all. Past the stream they turned aside, threading their way between a ring of horses to reach the man they had come to see: a marshal clad in mail and a deep green cloak, presently conversing with a leather-faced old man in drab clothes. The horseman acknowledged the visitors with a courteous nod as they approached, but the elder’s voice droned on; he was reciting a litany of the living, the lame, the dead, and the newly ownerless horses. At length the rider held up his hand to interrupt his flow of speech. The speaker not only stopped in mid-word, but seemed to have lost the power of speech altogether when he turned to find an elf standing beside him.

“Lord Legolas,” said the knight respectfully. “The loan we gave you has been repaid in generous measure.”

Legolas inclined his head, recognizing the rider from Éomer’s company, a man who had risked more than he realized by putting a spear to Aragorn’s shoulder at their first meeting. “Arod is strong and sure-footed. If you have any smaller animals who are riderless, my friend here is from Lórien, and needs a mount for the road to Gondor.”

The man blinked in surprise. “Elf, dwarf, wizard, holbyta... elf-maid going to war? These are strange times, as Lord Éomer said!”

Haleth grinned, throwing back at him, “Does not the Third Marshal have a sister?”

The soldier laughed. “So he does.” He fell back into his own tongue, consulting with the old man over the lists. At length he shook his head and turned back to tell them, “I am sorry, my lord, but right now we ourselves are trying to match horses to every warrior who can ride. I will send a lad to fetch you if we find one for your shieldmaiden.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Haleth, with no sign of disappointment save the slight movement of her shoulders. She gave the other man, peering at her suspiciously, a bright smile. “I will be with my people at the muster.”

As they were leaving, a boy sitting on a boulder leapt to his feet and raced towards them. “Fíriel! Fíriel!” Darting between horses, he suddenly pulled up short, gawking the tall elf.

Haleth punched his shoulder gently, grinning at his expression. “Hai, Éothain. This is Legolas, an elf-prince and comrade to Lord Aragorn. How’s my young axe-man?”

The boy held up his right hand, which was bound and wrapped. “My first scar, it will be,” he said proudly, although he swallowed his words under the scrutiny of the keen-eyed elf. “M-my lady, I’m sorry. I used up all your arrows.”

All of them? Are you sure?” Her face grew stern. “Legolas, what do you say to an archer that uses up all his arrows in a battle?”

He smiled faintly. “That he has not wasted them.”

Éothain flushed. “Thank you, sir.” He still looked crestfallen, but his words picked up speed as he chased down his thoughts. “But I have your bow! Do you want it back? Fíriel, you were right! It shot very far, and the rain didn’t bother it at all. The men said I was a good archer.”

Haleth nodded in satisfaction. “Did you hear that, Legolas? They gave him an axe. But this is no dwarf. He just needed a weapon his size to prove himself.”

The elf observed the boy gravely, folding his arms. “To prove himself a firion, you mean?”

Her eyes danced. “Yes, exactly.” She considered the boy’s question. “You may keep it. I don’t have time to hunt for new arrows right now.”

“Thank you!” Éothain’s eyes shone. “Mother— My mother told me to thank you for her also. Will you be staying long? She wants to give you something.”

She patted his shoulder, declaring confidently, “No, I ride to Gondor with Lord Aragorn and your king.”

He sagged. “You’re leaving? I thought you said you had no horse.”

“I am looking for one.” She glanced towards the two men, who had resumed their conversation without another glance at the visitors.

The youth sighed, tugging restlessly with the bandage on his wrist. “There are not going to be any horses left in Rohan until the war is over. So many warriors are riding away to Gondor.”

Haleth dropped to one knee next to him, her elven manner of speech growing subtly more pronounced, or at least more deliberate. “Éothain, hear me.”

He fidgeted with his hands but listened attentatively.

“The younger children will look to you for courage, for you have fought in the battle and know a little of what we face. And that will be hard, because it may grow very dark before your king returns. But remember how dark it was that night, and how frightening, and then think of the dawn with your king riding out and the horns ringing, and victory with the sunrise. Tell the children what Lord Aragorn said, that there is always hope. We have great men with us—” she glanced up with a hint of awe herself at the archer standing patiently beside her— “and fell-handed elves. The Hornburg did not fall. Neither will we.”

“I will remember,” the boy said softly.

Westu hál, young archer,” she told him. “Perhaps I will see you on the fields of Rohan when the war is over.” She kissed his hair.

With that, they went on their way, leaving the boy to fend off excited questions from some of the other children converging upon him.

Fíriel?” Legolas repeated as they reached the top of the path down to the keep. “Even to your own kind?”

“They don’t know what it means,” Haleth said, amused.

“That is a game you play,” Legolas observed, glancing down at her hair where it covered the tips of her ears.

When they reached the bottom, the archer glanced upwards sharply, noting a familiar silhouette against the sky. Aragorn was leaning against a balustrade high above them, bracing his arms as if he were bearing the weight of the mountain behind him on his shoulders. The elf’s brow furrowed.

Haleth squinted into the sun, searching for whatever had caught his attention. “What is it?”

“Lord Aragorn.”

She frowned, although there had been little in his tone to give her suspicion. “Then I hope I’ll see you at the muster.” A distant horn in the Deeping Coomb seemed to punctuate her words. “Hannon le, Legolas, for the seeking of a horse, the song, and some much-needed orc-tossing.”

Gimli sat upon a low wall behind Aragorn, arms folded along the top of his axe. “What has happened?” he asked finally. “I thought you said you’d take a little rest. Looks to me like you’re worse off with a few hours’ sleep than four days without.”

Aragorn turned away from the parapet, shaking his head. “It will be some while before I can rest, Gimli. There are two roads before me, and I think the one I must take is the Paths of the Dead.”

The dwarf sat up with a start. “That bauble Wormtongue threw down— it didn’t bounce off your head, did it?”

The ranger gave a wry laugh. “It did, but not then.” He met the dwarf’s gaze squarely. “I looked into it.”

Gimli groaned. “Worse and worse. I leave you alone for a few hours and you turn into a hobbit.” Behind the grumbling, the dwarf was watching him with grave concern. “Did you... did you see the Eye?”

“Yes, and he saw me.” Aragorn smiled raggedly. “Though as our comely elf complains, that is not much to look at these days. Sauron now knows who I am, Gimli. But no more than that.”

The dwarf pushed to his feet and stumped over. “What in Durin’s name possessed you? Even Gandalf would not touch it, once he knew what it was. He foisted it off on you!”

“Nothing possessed me save need,” replied Aragorn sternly. There was a hardness in his face which the dwarf had not seen before. “Nor did Gandalf give it to me simply to keep safe. It was a challenge, Gimli, to see whether I can best our foe by will or design, since we cannot defeat him by arms. That challenge I met, barely.”

The dwarf stared at him agog, a few embers of doubt still flickering under his brows. “Seems a mighty risk just to flaunt your fist in his face, Aragorn!”

“There is more.” The ranger turned east, eyes narrowing. “When I wrested the Palántir from him I saw his plans. There is a great threat coming from the south which Gondor cannot withstand, and I doubt Rohan will reach the city in time to counter it. I am not even certain Théoden’s people have the numbers and strength enough for the task.”

Gimli’s face fell. “Then our hope fades.”

“No.” Aragorn straightened. “Remember who I am, Gimli son of Glóin. Isildur’s heir I must be, now that I have thrown down the gauntlet and shown myself to the Enemy, in deed as well as blood.” He exhaled, evidently reaching a decision at last. “So I must take Isildur’s path.”

“And that is?” Legolas said, stepping out onto the parapet behind Gimli.

Aragorn met the elf’s fierce glance with one of his own. “The Black Stone of Erech. Come. I will explain as we go down. I must speak with Timdaur.”

Horns were ringing from cliff to cliff when Aragorn and his companions came to the gates.  The host of the Rohirrim were assembling across the mouth of the Deeping Coomb.  Their green cloaks and mail shone in the noonday sun, at least where shadows from the looming cliffs on either side did not cover them, and some of the watchers fitting stone to the broken wall wept as they looked down from the heights.  Théoden and Éomer were supervising the muster from the lower span of the causeway.  Meriadoc, wearing the colors of the Mark and mounted on a sturdy pony at his new master’s side, watched the proceedings with a worried but determined expression that would have startled the cousins he’d left behind in the Shire.

In the flats below, marshals were leading their éords one by one to the glittering stream for a last watering before the journey.  This had taken some time, for Théoden was bringing nearly every rider in the Mark who could wield sword or lance.  He was counting upon the hammer of Sauron’s might to fall hardest upon Gondor and the Golden Wood, between which any force from the east must pass to come at Rohan.  This was not to the liking of all his councillors, who did not wish to hazard their folk on the strength of elven bows and a Lady they feared to name, or upon the uncertain will of the shepherds of the ancient forest.  Nor were all foes in the west vanquished.  Saruman might be contained, but the Misty Mountains still had their orcs and lesser vermin.  But Aragorn had been adamant at the council, and the king agreed: prudence and despair had nearly cost them everything in their dealings with Saruman.  This war could only be won by trusting to fragile hopes.

Legolas searched for the Galadrim when he followed Aragorn out into the sunlight. They had assembled on the far side of the Coomb, clustered in formation on the toes of the crumbling slope down which the White Rider had come blazing two days before.  The archer was pleased, for he saw that Rohan had given its finest treasures to his people to speed them on their way: long-limbed but strong horses showing a hint of Shadowfax in their proud bearing.  He was also quick to note one absence among them.

Aragorn noticed two others, and touched his shoulder. “I rych.”

The elf dipped his eyes and turned back towards the citadel to seek the stables.  Aragorn and Gimli went on, striding down the causeway to meet the king.  Timdaur, spotting them from afar, rode over from his company to join them.

“Lord Aragorn.” Théoden hailed as they approached.  “All is in readiness, and my doubts are set aside.”

“As are mine,” Aragorn said with a smile at the dwarf’s grumble.

Éomer, studying the Ranger’s lined face with a frown, opened his mouth to speak, but Gimli interrupted him.  

“Are you tied on, Merry?” Gimli called up to the hobbit.  “I am not chasing after you a second time, so be sure you don’t fall behind.”

“I don’t intend to,” the hobbit said stoutly.  “But if you want to keep up, I hope you have a horse.”

Aragorn laughed. “Legolas is fetching ours.  The Three Hunters have had enough of running across Rohan for the moment.”

Timdaur nodded a greeting to the king before turning to Aragorn.  “Dúnadan.  Where would you have us?”

Gimli snorted.  “And well you should ask, Captain!  Aragorn has a notion to try a road that should earn us a song or three, if any live to tell of it.”

But the grave elf seemed to know what was afoot, and stated simply, “Then you have chosen prophecy.”

“I have,” said Aragorn, “for time grows short, as Elrond warned me in his last message.  I shall put the words of the Seer to the test.  Will you follow?”

“The elves do not fear your dead, Dúnadan.  We will go wherever need drives you.”

At this odd exchange, several of the king’s guard murmured uneasily to one another.  Éomer, nudging his mount forward, interrupted their discussion, speaking in dismay that was mirrored on the face of the king.  “Aragorn, what are you saying?  Are we not to draw swords together in battle?  Will you turn aside from Gondor at the very hour when we ride to her aid?”

“I do not turn aside, Éomer!”  The man’s eyes flashed, but his tone was fond.  “We shall draw swords together, my friend, though all the hosts of Mordor come between us; provided that I can win another battle first.  Rohan’s aid may decide whether Gondor stands or falls.  But such force takes time to gather.  I and Timdaur must ride the swiftest road to Minas Tirith, and prepare your way.”

“That is sense, although your counsel will be missed,” the king said doubtfully.  “But what is this talk of Seers and the dead?  With all due respect to Gandalf, I have had my fill of sorcery.”

“I ride to Dunharrow,” answered Aragorn, his face stern and resolute, “on a road appointed me long ago.”

Murmurs changed to exclamations of dread among the Rohirrim who heard this, and Éomer himself blanched.  Merry shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, bewildered and alarmed by the reactions of the warriors around him.

“Speak no inauspicious words!” Théoden cried.  “That is not a road for mortal men— or any living folk.”  He tipped his chin towards the elves.

“What madness is on you?”  Éomer demanded, beseeching his friend.  “I think Saruman must have bent his will to rob us of you when we need you most!”

Gimli sighed loudly at the Ranger’s elbow. “I don’t see why you couldn’t put your mad notions on the table during the council, Aragorn, so that we might all bellow at you together and have done.  And where’s that elf?”

The stables of the keep were stout-walled, narrow, and dark, built to one side of the king’s hall, and little to an elf’s liking.   Such were the needs of war.  They were all but empty now, apart from a few boys cleaning the stalls, but the stablemaster met Legolas at the entrance and stammered a greeting.

Dryhtenonga,” he said haltingly. “They are saddled and ready at the far end—”

Legolas did not pause in his running, and left the man bemused and still finishing his sentence.  The elf moved swiftly along the narrow aisle, sniffing the odd heavy scents of hay and human, sweat and wood and leather.  Most of this was alien to him.  There were few horses in Mirkwood, and they were canny, wild creatures that ran free with the deer in the northern meadows and beech-groves guarded by his folk.

Brego and Arod had been stabled in a stall together at the back, as the old man had said, kept apart from the bustle that had doubtless filled the place a short time ago. They were not only tacked and ready, but freshly groomed, and their harness had been scrubbed clean of the dirt and stains from travel and the recent battle. The horses were not alone, either.  A small figure was perched on the stone wall beside them. Haleth hopped down and unlatched the door as he approached, then caught Brego’s bridle and guided him out as Legolas slipped past her into the stall.

“Haleth,” he said briefly.  There was little time for greeting animal or human, and after a light touch between Arod’s eyes, he followed her out with his mount pacing at his shoulder.

“Ah, Legolas, I thought you were not coming!  A pity.  I was just debating which of these beauties to steal.”

“I am sorry,” he said as they moved up the aisle.

She wiped a smudge of sawdust from Brego’s halter, shaking her head.  “Well, perhaps I should have gone back to Lórien after all.  There are always trees enough to go around.  But I must not grumble.  I hear that even the White Lady of Rohan cannot seem to find a horse in the land of the horse-lords.  She does not know when it is permitted for a lady of such renown to apply the flat of a sword to someone’s backside.”

That drew a laugh from the elf.  “The people of Rohan also need defenders,” he reminded her.

“I know it.”  Her voice softened.  “And they need folk who are not strong but can feign courage.  Remember those you leave behind, Legolas!  You go off to war and deeds, certain in the strength of your hands and your friends.  But many are ignorant of such matters and must wait, fearful and powerless, while their loved ones struggle to defend them.  I will suffer stone walls for their sake, since I cannot follow you.”

They cleared the stable’s entryway, giving the grizzled stablemaster a nod as they passed.  In the slanting light of a high window overlooking the garth, Legolas leapt up into the saddle and beckoned to her when she did not do the same. “Come.  You cannot ride to Gondor, but you may as well help me bring Brego to his master and see us off.”

“I wasn’t sure it was permitted for anyone besides a king’s son or a king-to-be to ride him.”  Her face turned pensive as she unclasped her cloak and threw its hood over the bill of the saddle, scrambling up the cloth as if scaling a rope. “They say this animal was Théodred’s.”

“I know,” he said, ducking under an arched doorway as they came into the king’s hall.  There was an unspoken concern in her voice that he had not missed, but he did not answer it.  “Haleth, that is an odd way of mounting a horse. Is everything a tree to you?”

“Anything whose nose I can’t reach by hopping,” she shot back.

By the time they reached the gate, Théoden and his guard had advanced to to the front of the host and were gathering in formation under the king’s banner.  Legolas turned aside at the foot of the causeway and rode along the wall behind the assembled éords, having spotted Gimli and Aragorn walking back to the Galadrim with their captain.

“There you are at last!” Gimli growled as the elf dismounted to hoist him.  It was an indignity the dwarf had been forced to accept during the trek from Edoras; in exchange, Legolas had yielded to his demands for a saddle.  “I thought perhaps you had decided to weave little elf-braids into their hair.”

Haleth hopped down and passed the reins to Aragorn with a shy bow, then stepped into the shadow of the wall to watch them depart.  Legolas glanced down at her, just in time to see her yearning expression melt into raw astonishment as a young voice called out behind them.  “Fíriel!”

Legolas turned and spotted the small rider cantering their way.  Éothain was slipping forward and hanging onto the tall horse’s neck in his haste to reach them before the horns sounded.  Evidently he had been waiting under the upper span of the causeway.

“I think you have your horse,” Legolas observed, feeling Gimli’s less than patient glowering at his back.  The elf and dwarf moved off, taking up their usual position at Aragorn’s side.

“I think you are right,” she said to empty air, then ran to meet the boy.

“Fíriel!"  Éothan cried again, causing a few heads in the hindmost ranks of the Rohirrim to turn.  He slipped awkwardly from the high saddle, and was lucky someone was there to save him from a tumble.

“Hai, Éothain, you’ve found me,” she said, gripping his shoulders tightly and bending a knee to come down to his eye level.  She spoke slowly, dismissing the bustle and hubbub of the muster and the repair-work being done almost overhead.  “But that is Garold. I can tell by the way he is looking at you. I cannot take one of your own family!  If something were to happen—”

“Lord Éomer has commanded every horse fit for travel to be given to a warrior.  Garold rides to battle.”  There was a glitter of tears in the boy’s eyes, although he spoke earnestly and soberly.  “I am the man of my household, and I say who will ride him.  It is Fíriel.”

The shouts of several thousand men rolled across the Coomb and back, booming like thunder: it was a rallying-cry for Théoden and the Mark.  But Haleth searched his eyes for a long moment before brushing his cheek with her thumb.  “Then I will do all I can to make sure he rides back,” she said finally. “Thank you, Éothain. And give your mother my thanks also.”

He nodded and gulped, watching as she stepped to the horse’s side and reached up to place her hand against its mane and neck.  She whispered a few words in Elvish that caused the boy’s face to brighten, and the horse to lower its head curiously, lipping the shoulder of her cloak.  Haleth grinned and clapped Garold’s withers with the flat of her hand.  Then she ducked under him, searched for a good-sized notch in the stonework, jammed her heel against it as a mounting block, and hauled herself up in a somewhat more dignified manner than she had shown the elf.  The horns of Rohan began to ring from every slab of the Hornburg.

“Be careful, Garold,” the boy whispered, inaudible in the uproar. “Westu Hál, Fíriel.”  With that, he turned away and strode off, shoulders set so that he could not turn his head.  Haleth pressed heels lightly against the horse’s sides and reached the company of Gray-elves just as its leaders were taking their places.

“Haleth.”  Timdaur turned in the saddle and raised a hand towards her in a dismissive gesture.  “We ride the Paths of the Dead.  That is no road for a mortal.”

The young woman stared at the captain incredulously, and shifted her gaze towards Aragorn and Gimli with a meaningful lift of her eyebrows.  But Timdaur’s face remained closed.

Hîr nín,” Haleth said firmly, “Camen fíreb; gûren e-dawaredhel.

Legolas started, a peculiar expression flickering briefly across his face.

Timdaur’s face grew stern.  “Stay with your own kind, fíriel,” he snapped.  “That is an order.”

The woman’s jaw tightened, but she made no further protest.  Silently, she turned her horse’s head and moved to one side.  Théoden at the forefront of the vast host raised his arm, and the horns fell silent.

Forth Eorlingas!” he commanded.  The cry was taken up by the riders and the watchers of the garrison as the éords began to move.  The Gray Company started too, since their course lay together with the Rohirrim for some leagues before they turned off south towards Dunharrow.  The Deeping Coomb trembled with the beat of countless hooves.

“What was all that about?”  Gimli shouted in Legolas’ ear as the dust rose around them.   “What did she say?”

Legolas seemed to hesitate for a moment before calling over his shoulder.   “My hand is mortal, but my heart is elven.”

The dwarf snorted.  “And evidently her brain is addled.”


Continued in Part II: The Arrows of the King.