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For many hours they rode on through the meads and riverlands, stopping only three or four times to allow their horses to drink before continuing on. Often the grass was so high that it reached above the knees of the Riders, and their steeds seemed to be swimming in a grey-green sea. They came upon many hidden pools, and broad acres of sedge waving above wet and treacherous bogs; but the Riders found their way. Slowly the sun fell from the sky down into the West. Looking out over the great plain, far away the riders saw it for a moment like a red fire sinking into the grass. Low upon the edge of sight shoulders of the mountains glinted red upon either side. A smoke seemed to rise up and darken the sun’s disc to the hue of blood, as if it had kindled the grass as it passed down under the rim of earth.
“There lies the Gap of Rohan,” said Aragorn. “It is now almost due west of us. That way lies Isengard.”
“I see a great smoke,” said Merry. “What may that be?”
“Battle and war!” said Aragorn. “Our time is shorter than I had feared.”
They rode on through sunset, and slow dusk, and gathering night. When at last they halted and dismounted, for the night even Aragorn was stiff and weary. Eomer only allowed them a few hours of rest. Even the elves slept and Merry lay flat next to Aragorn, stretched upon his back. All was silent, and there was no sign or sound of living thing. The night was barred with long clouds, fleeting on a chill wind, when they arose again. Under the cold moon they went on once more, as swift as by the light of day.
Hours passed and still they rode on. Merry nodded and would have fallen from his seat, if Aragorn had not clutched and shaken him. The Riders of Rohan, weary but proud, followed their tireless leader into the night, for great was their need which drove them through the night. The miles went by. The waxing moon sank into the cloudy West.
A bitter chill came into the air. Slowly in the East the dark faded to a cold grey. Red shafts of light leapt above the black walls of the Emyn Muil far away upon their left. Dawn came clear and bright; a wind swept across their path, rushing through the bent grasses. Suddenly Eomer’s horse Firefoot stood still and neighed. The captain of Rohan pointed ahead.
“Look!” he cried, and they lifted their tired eyes. Before them stood the mountains of the South: white-tipped and streaked with black. The grass-lands rolled against the hills that clustered at their feet, and flowed up into many valleys still dim and dark, untouched by the light of dawn, winding their way into the heart of the great mountains. Immediately before the travellers the widest of these glens opened like a long gulf among the hills. Far inward they glimpsed a tumbled mountain-mass with one tall peak; at the mouth of the vale there stood like sentinel a lonely height. About its feet there flowed, as a thread of silver, the stream that issued from the dale; upon its brow they caught, still far away, a glint in the rising sun, a glimmer of gold.
Elladan gazed ahead, shading his eyes from the level shafts of the new-risen sun. “I see a white stream that comes down from the snows,” he said. Elrohir agreed, “Where it issues from the shadow of the vale a green hill rises upon the east. A dike and mighty wall and thorny fence encircle it. Within there rise the roofs of houses; and in the midst, set upon a green terrace, there stands aloft a great hall of Men. And it seems to my eyes that it is thatched with gold. The light of it shines far over the land. Golden, too, are the posts of its doors. There men in bright mail stand; and a great gathering of men and horses are collected outside the fence.”
“Edoras those courts are called,” said Grima, “and Meduseld is that golden hall. There dwells Théoden son of Thengel, King of the Mark of Rohan. We come now with the rising of the day. Now the road lies plain to see before us. But war is abroad, and the Rohirrim do not sleep as it approaches. Draw no weapon, speak no haughty word, I counsel you all, until we are come before Théoden’s seat.”
Their path led them through the encampment, where men were beginning to stir. Eomer and the Riders were hailed with friendship, but for Grima there was no greeting beyond dark glances and hostile eyes. Upon Aragorn, Merry and the elves, the Rohirrim stared openly, for they appeared as figures out of the legends to them. At the foot of the walled hill the way ran under the shadow of many mounds, high and green. Upon their western sides the grass was white as with a drifted snow: small flowers sprang there like countless stars amid the turf.
“Look!” said Aragorn to Merry. “How fair are the bright eyes in the grass! Evermind they are called, simbelmynë in this land, for they blossom in all the seasons of the year, and grow where dead men rest. Behold! we are come to the great barrows where the sires of Theoden sleep. Seven mounds upon the left, and nine upon the right. It has been many long lives of men it is since the golden hall was built.”
“Five hundred times have the red leaves fallen in Mirkwood in my home since then,” said Legolas, “and but a little while does that seem to us.”
“But to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago,” said Aragorn, “that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years before are lost in the mist of time. Now they call this land their home, their own, and their speech is sundered from their northern kin.” Then he began to chant softly in a slow tongue unknown to the Elves and Hobbit; yet they listened, for there was a strong music.
Eomer overheard and gazed at Aragorn with fresh wonder. “There are few beyond our borders who know our words, and save a handful of scholars in the White City none who know our poetry. You must have spent time amongst us, for your tongue betrays the lilt of the Eastfold.”
“I am no stranger to these lands, though much has changed and perhaps now these lands are strange to me.”
“That was beautiful,” interjected Merry. “But meaning what do those words carry?”
“It runs thus in the Common Speech,” said Eomer, “as near as I can make it.
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
Thus spoke a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan, recalling how tall and fair was Eorl the Young, who rode down out of the North; and there were wings upon the feet of his steed, Felaróf, father of horses. So men still sing in the evening.”
With these words the travellers passed the silent mounds. Following the winding way up the green shoulders of the hills, they came at last to the wide wind-swept walls and the gates of Edoras.
There sat many men in bright mail, who sprang at once to their feet and barred the way with spears. “Hail Eomer, Eomund’s son. Your return is most timely, as the King would have your presence in his hall this day. And yours also, Grima son of Galmod,” they cried in the tongue of the Riddermark. The latter ignored the bite behind their words as he dismounted. “But stay you here, strangers here unknown!” Wonder was in their eyes but little friendliness.
“Well do I understand your speech,” Aragorn answered in the same language; “yet few strangers do so. Why then do you not speak in the Common Tongue, as is the custom in the West, if you wish to be answered?”
“It is the will of Théoden King that none should enter his gates, save those who know our tongue and are our friends,” replied one of the guards. “None are welcome here in days of war but our own folk, and those that come from Mundburg in the land of Gondor.”
“Peace Halmod,” said Eomer. “I vouch for these guests, and guarantee their conduct until such a time as they pass from our borders. They shall accompany us the Mesuseld, for the King shall wish to hear their tidings.”
Halmod raised his spear. “Then I leave them in your custody.” He motioned and the guards at his back stepped aside as the company passed under the gatehouse, though their eyes did not leave Aragorn or the elves until they had were out of sight.
The travelers entered, walking in file behind Eomer and Grima. They found a broad path, paved with hewn stones, now winding upward, now climbing in short flights of well-laid steps. Many houses built of wood and many dark doors they passed. Beside the way in a stone channel a stream of clear water flowed, sparkling and chattering. At length they came to the crown of the hill. There stood a high platform above a green terrace, at the foot of which a bright spring gushed from a stone carved in the likeness of a horse’s head; beneath was a wide basin from which the water. spilled and fed the falling stream. Up the green terrace went a stair of stone, high and broad, and on either side of the topmost step were stone-hewn sea, There sat other guards, with drawn swords laid upon their knees. Their golden hair was braided on their shoulders the sun was blazoned upon their green shields, their long corslets were burnished bright, and when they rose taller they seemed than mortal men.
Eomer and Grima led the travelers as they climbed the long stair under the eyes of the tall watchmen. Silent they stood now above and spoke no word, until Eomer stepped out upon the paved terrace at the stair’s head. Then suddenly with clear voices they spoke a courteous greeting in their own tongue.
“Hail, Eomer Eomund’s son!” they said, and they turned the hilts of their swords towards the group in token of peace. Green gems flashed in the sunlight. Then one of the guards stepped forward and spoke to the travellers in the Common Speech.
“I am the Doorward of Théoden,” he said. “Háma is my name. Here I must charge you to lay aside your weapons at the door, as no stranger may bear arms within the walls of Meduseld.”
Silently Merry, Legolas and the sons of Elrond unbuckled their belts and passed over their swords and long-knives and even Legolas’s bow. Aragorn stood a while hesitating. “It is not my will,” he said, “to put aside my sword or to deliver Andúril to the hand of any other man.”
“It is the will of Theoden,” said Hama.
“It is not clear to me that the will of Théoden son of Thengel even though he be lord of the Mark, should prevail over the will of Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elendil’s heir of Gondor. But I would do as the master of the house bade me, were this only a woodman’s cot, if I bore now any sword but Andúril. Nevertheless, for the sake of amity between us I shall do as requested by your lord.”
Slowly Aragorn unbuckled his belt and himself set his sword upright against the wall. “Here I set it,” he said; “but I command you not to touch it, nor to permit any other to lay hand on it. In this elvish heath dwells the Blade that was Broken and has been made again. Telchar first wrought it in the deeps of time. Death shall come to any man that draws Elendil’s sword save Elendil’s heir.”
The guard stepped back and looked with amazement on Aragorn. “It seems that you are come on the wings of song out of the forgotten days he said. It shall be, lord, as you command.”
The guards now lifted the heavy bars of the doors and swung them slowly inwards grumbling on their great hinges. The company entered. Inside it seemed dark and warm after the clear air upon the hill. The hall was long and wide and filled with shadows and half lights; mighty pillars upheld its lofty roof. But here and there bright sunbeams fell in glimmering shafts from the eastern windows, high under the deep eaves. Through the louver in the roof, above the thin wisps of issuing smoke, the sky showed pale and blue. As their eyes changed, the travelers perceived that the floor was paved with stones of many hues; branching runes and strange devices intertwined beneath their feet. They saw now that the pillars were richly carved, gleaming dully with gold and half-seen colours. Many woven cloths were hung upon the walls, and over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend, some dim with years, some darkening in the shade. But upon one form the sunlight fell: a young man upon a white horse. He was blowing a great horn, and his yellow hair was flying in the wind. The horse’s head was lifted, and its nostrils were wide and red as it neighed, smelling battle afar. Foaming water, green and white, rushed and curled about its knees.
“Behold Eorl the Young!” said Aragorn. “Thus he rode out of the North to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant.”
Now the companions went forward, past the clear wood-fire burning upon the long hearth in the midst of the hall. Then they halted. At the far end of the house, beyond the hearth and facing north towards the doors, was a dais with three steps; and in the middle of the dais was a great gilded chair. Upon it sat a man worn by age, but possessing a great strength beneath his lined features, as an ancient tree that stands proud when younger saplings might bow before the wind. His white hair was long and thick and fell in great braids from beneath a thin golden circle set upon his brow. In the centre upon his forehead shone a single white diamond. His beard was laid like snow upon his knees; but his eyes still burned with a bright light, glinting as he gazed at the strangers. Behind his chair stood a woman clad in white and sanding around him were a dozen tall men, clad in green and gold.
Eomer strode forward to kneel at the foot of the dais, followed closely by Grima. “Hail, Theoden King! I have returned. It was as Grima said, the Uruks hunted that which he spoke of but none shall return to Isengard to bear news of their failure to their wretched master.”
Slowly the old man rose to his feet, leaning gently on the young woman’s arm; and now Merry saw that, bent though he was, he was still tall and retained a strength beyond his stature.
“I greet you, Eomer sister-son, and commend you for your actions,” he said. “And you Grima, your honesty in this matter has postponed your judgement yet. But who are these with you?” His eyes examined the strangers before him. “Is this the halfling of whom you spoke, he whom Saruman sought? And who are these who travel with him?”
“He is not, my Lord Theoden,” Aragorn answered in the tongue of the Rohirrim, stepping forward and dropping to his knee. “Saruman’s quarry has fled east out of his grasp. This brave one here,” Aragorn motioned to Merry, who quickly fell to one knee also despite not knowing the words spoken of him, “travelled with him for many miles before their paths seperated, and has passed through more dangers than all your captains combined.”
Theoden’s eyes flashed, “And who are you to tell me of my captain’s experience? Or to speak knowledgeably of the Ring of Power? You are no elf, yet you seem to delight in their company. And how do you come to know our tongue? I do not believe your arrival here this day is mere coincidence, but whether the tides of fate turn for good or ill is yet to be seen. Speak quickly now, and give an answer.”
Before Aragorn could reply Grima spoke, not turning his face from the ground where he gazed at from his knees. “You speak justly, lord,” he said. “It is not yet ten days since the bitter tidings came that Theodred your son was slain upon the West Marches: your right hand, Second Marshal Of the Mark. It will be to my eternal shame and regret that I did not speak quickly enough, that he might stand here too before you. But this day, would he not counsel you that these strangers before you are friends unlooked for? Even now we learn from Gondor that the Dark Lord is stirring in the East, just as the White Wizard seeks to supplant you from the West. Such is the hour in which these wanderers choose to appear. For such they do appear, as five ragged wanderers in grey, and this man the most beggar-like of the troop!
“And yet seldom has any lord of Rohan received such guests. Weapons they have laid at your doors that are worth many a mortal man, even the mightiest. Before you are the sons of Elrond Half-elven, Master of Rivendell in the north, the fame of whose counsel and wisdom is legendary throughout the world. Here too is the prince of the elven-halls of Mirkwood to the north, by the lands of our forebears, whose people do not venture hence save in the direst of need. And this halfling is among the noblest of their folk, a princeling of his people and heir to the great Brandy Hall of Buckland.” Merry started at mention of his home, clearly this Grima knew much more of them and their purpose than he had let show. He knew that the name would mean nothing to the people of Rohan, but it was a name nonetheless and that bore some weight with them.
“And this man here,” Grima stood finally, gently pulling up Aragorn with him, “this man is known to you my king, but under a different name than he wears now. For he rode with your sire Thengel in the days of your childhood, known as he was by the name Thorongil.”
Theoden took a step toward Aragorn. “Thorongil? Can it be? But it has been a full fifty years since he departed to serve Ecthelion in Gondor. Last we heard of him he sacked Umbar and journeyed into the East. This man cannot be the same, what is this deception?”
“It is no deception my King,” answered Grima. “This is indeed Thorongil of old, though his true name ought to be now know. This is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur and Anarion both, the rightful King of Arnor and Gondor. A true son of Numenor, he and his folk are blessed with life longer than that of ordinary men, if a blessing it may be called. The time has come for Isildur’s heir to step forward out of the shadows and declare himself. See the tokens he bears as proof of his ancestry, the sword Narsil, reforged anew as Anduril, and the Elessar, gifted to him by Arwen, Elrond Half-elven’s daughter. The sons of Elrond here before you can vouchsafe his identity, lord. All this is true, I swear to you.”
Still leaning on the arm of the young woman, Theoden stepped down to face Aragorn. “It may be that you are who it claimed you are. Maybe you are not. Regardless, your name will give hope to Men at this dark time. Am I to take it then that this halfling with you is meant to complete the image you wish to present, that it might appear you have Isildur’s Bane with you?”
For the first time since entering the Golden Hall Aragorn spoke, “I am no charlatan my lord. I did indeed ride with your father, the likes of whom this world has not seen since Eorl the Young rode upon this land. I was with him as the Orcs were driven from the Eastemnet and into the Anduin, and rode by his side when the Dunlandings raided the Westfold. I am Isildur’s heir, and can no longer remain hidden from the gaze of the Enemy. And you are partially correct as to the presence of Meriadoc, though he has proven himself time and again on our quest, and has not shrunk from any danger. I would gladly name his as friend in any undertaking of mine from henceforth. I fear our being here in Edoras may only call down the wrath of Saruman all the sooner, yet for that I make no apology, for our aim is the destruction of Isildur’s Bane, not its wielding, and for that we must draw the ire of the Enemy to ourselves, this its true carriers may pass unnoticed.Doom hangs still on a thread. Yet hope there is still, if we can but stand unconquered for a little while.”
Theoden nodded, and turned back to his chair. He slowly sat again, as if weariness still struggled to master him. He turned and looked at his great house. “Alas!” he said, “that these evil days should be mine, and should come in my old age instead of that peace which I have earned. The young perish and the old linger, withering.” He clutched his knees with his wrinkled hands. Then Theoden rose and put his hand to his side, and suddenly he drew Herugrim, his blade, and swung it shimmering and whistling in the air. Then he gave a great cry. His voice rang clear as he chanted in the tongue of Rohan a call to arms.
Arise now, arise, Riders of Theoden!
Dire deeds awake, dark is it eastward.
Let horse be bridled, horn be sounded!
Facing Aragorn once again, he said. “I know you must be weary, but there can be no rest yet The men of Rohan must ride forth today. We ride to war, but we shall not seek out our deaths, not at this hour when there is work yet to be done. We shall make for the fastness of Helm’s Deep that we may weather the storm of Saruman. And once the forces of that wizard have broken themselves as water on rock, we shall sally forth and make war on Isengard. You shall be outfitted with the best my house can offer, if you would join us. The Sword that was Broken would be of great help to us in this dark time.”
“We shall ride with you, for our fate is now bound up with your own.”
“Behold! I go forth, and it seems like to be my last riding,” said Theoden. “I have no child. Theodred my son is slain. I name Eomer my sister-son to be my heir. If neither of us return, then choose a new lord as you will. But to someone I must now entrust my people that I leave behind, to rule them in my place. Which of you will stay?”
No man spoke.
“Is there none whom you would name? In whom do my people trust?”
“In the House of Eorl,” answered Hama. “There is Eowyn, daughter of Eomund, his sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone.”
“It shall be so,” said Theoden. “Let the heralds announce to the folk that the Lady Eowyn will lead them! It is well you arrived when you did, Eomer sister-son. Had you come but two hours later you would find us departed from Meduseld. Now we have waited too long, let us ride forth!”
The king now went down to the doors of the Golden Hall, and then down the stair with Eomer beside him. The others followed. Aragorn looked back as they passed towards the gate. Alone Éowyn stood before the doors of the house at the stair’s head; a sword was set upright before her, and her hands were laid upon the hilt.
At the gate they found a great host of men, old and young, all ready in the saddle. More than a thousand were there mustered. Their spears were like a springing wood. Loudly and joyously they shouted as Theoden came forth. Some held in readiness the king’s horse, Snowmane, and others held the horses of Aragorn and the other travellers.
“Our King! Our King of the Mark!” they shouted. “Forth Eorlingas!”
The trumpets sounded. The horses reared and neighed. Spear clashed on shield. Then the king raised his hand, and with a rush like the sudden onset of a great wind the last host of Rohan rode thundering into the West. Far over the plain Eowyn saw the glitter of their spears, as she stood still, alone before the doors of the silent house.
The host had been riding for two days, pursued by an increasing heaviness in the air heralding a great host of think black clouds following. In the afternoon the dark clouds began to overtake them: a somber canopy with great billowing edges flecked with dazzling light. The sun went down, blood-red in a smoking haze. The spears of the Riders were tipped with fire as the last shafts of light kindled the steep faces of the peaks of Thrihyrne: now very near they stood on the northernmost arm of the White Mountains, three jagged horns staring at the sunset. In the last red glow men in the vanguard saw a black speck, a horseman riding back towards them. They halted awaiting him.
He came, a weary man with dinted helm and cloven shield. Slowly he climbed from his horse and stood there a while gasping. At length he spoke. “Is Eomer here?” he asked. “You come at last, but too late, and with too little strength. Things have gone evilly since Theodred fell. We were driven back yesterday over the Isen with great loss; many perished at the crossing. Then at night fresh forces came over the river against our camp. All Isengard must be emptied; and Saruman has armed the wild hillmen and herd-folk of Dunland beyond the rivers, and these also he loosed upon us. We were overmastered. The shield-wall was broken. Elfhelm was sent of Erkenbrand to draw off those men he could gather towards his fastness in Helm’s Deep. The Marshall himself has gone to gather those that are scattered. Where is Eomer? Tell him the Fords have fallen, he should flee to Helm’s Deep before the wolves of Isengard overtake us.”
Theoden had sat silent, hidden from the man’s sight behind his guards; now he urged his horse forward. “Come, stand before me, Ceorl!” he said. “I am here. The last host of the Eorlingas has ridden forth. It will not return without battle.”
The man’s face lightened with joy and wonder. He drew himself up. Then he knelt, offering his notched sword to the king. “Command me, lord!” he cried. “And pardon me! I thought-”
“You thought I remained in Meduseld as my captains might counsel, but not so,” said Theoden. “Give this man a fresh horse! Let us ride to the help of Elfhelm!”
The host turned away now from the road to the Fords of Isen and bent their course southward. Night fell, and still they rode on. The hills drew near, but the tall peaks of Thrihyrne were already dim against the darkening sky. Still some miles away, on the far side of the Westfold Vale, lay a green coomb, a great bay in the mountains, out of which a gorge opened in the hills. Men of that land called it Helm’s Deep, after a hero of old wars who had made his refuge there. Ever steeper and narrower it wound inward from the north under the shadow of the Thrihyrne, till the crow-haunted cliffs rose like mighty towers on either side, shutting out the light.
At Helm’s Gate, before the mouth of the Deep, there was a heel of rock thrust outward by the northern cliff. There upon its spur stood high walls of ancient stone, and within them was a lofty tower. Men said that in the far-off days of the glory of Gondor the sea-kings had built here this fastness with the hands of giants. The Hornburg it was called, for a trumpet sounded upon the tower echoed in the Deep behind, as if armies long-forgotten were issuing to war from caves beneath the hills. A wall, too, the men of old had made from the Hornburg to the southern cliff, barring the entrance to the gorge. Beneath it by a wide culvert the Deeping-stream passed out. About the feet of the Hornrock it wound, and flowed then in a gully through the midst of a wide green gore, sloping gently down from Helm’s Gate to Helm’s Dike. Thence it fell into the Deeping-coomb and out into the Westfold Vale. There in the Hornburg at Helm’s Gate Erkenbrand, master of Westfold on the borders of the Mark, now dwelt. As the days darkened with threat of war, being wise, he had repaired the wall and made the fastness strong.
The Riders were still in the low valley before the mouth of the Coomb, when cries and hornblasts were heard from their scouts that went in front. Out of the darkness arrows whistled. Swiftly a scout rode back and reported that wolf-riders were abroad in the valley, and that a host of Orcs and wild men were hurrying southward from the Fords of Isen and seemed to be making for Helm’s Deep.
“We have found many of our folk lying slain as they fled thither,” said the scout. “And we have met scattered companies, going this way and that, leaderless.”
“And what of the enemy?” asked Theoden. “ Is it known how great is the host that comes from the North?”
“It is very great,” said the scout. “He that flies counts every foeman twice, yet I have spoken to stouthearted men, and I do not doubt that the main strength of the enemy is many times as great as all that we have here.”
“Then let us be swift,” said Éomer. “Let us drive through such foes as are already between us and the fastness. There are caves in Helm’s Deep where hundreds may lie hid; and secret ways lead thence up on to the hills.”
“Trust not to secret ways,” said the king. “Saruman has long spied out this land. Still in that place our defence may last long. Let us go!”
Aragorn, with Merry and Legolas, went now with Eomer in the van while the sons of Elrond went and joined Grimbold in the rear-guard. On through the dark night they rode, ever slower as the darkness deepened and their way climbed southward, higher and higher into the dim folds about the mountains’ feet. They found few of the enemy before them. Here and there they came upon roving bands of Orcs; but all save a few fled ere the Riders could take or slay them.
“It will not be long I fear,” said Eomer, “ere the coming of the king’s host will be known to the leader of our enemies, Saruman or whatever captain he has sent forth.”
The rumour of war grew behind them. Now they could hear, borne over the dark, the sound of harsh singing. They had climbed far up into the Deeping-coomb when they looked back. Then they saw torches countless points of fiery light upon the black fields behind, scattered like red flowers, or winding up from the lowlands in long flickering lines. Here and there a larger blaze leapt up.
“It is a great host and follows us hard,” said Aragorn.
“They bring fire,” said Theoden, “and they are burning as they come, rick, cot, and tree. This was a rich vale and had many homesteads. Alas for my folk!”
“Would that day was here and we might ride down upon them like a storm out of the mountains!” said Aragorn. “It grieves me to fly before them.”
“We need not fly much further,” said Eomer. “Not far ahead now lies Helm’s Dike, an ancient trench and rampart scored across the coomb, two furlongs below Helm’s Gate. There we can turn and give battle.”
“Nay, we are too few to defend the Dike,” said Theoden. ‘It is a mile long or more, and the breach in it is wide. We shall press on to Helm’s Gate, that we may take shelter within the Hornburg itself.”
“At the breach our rearguard must stand, if we are pressed,” said Eomer.
There was neither star nor moon when the Riders came to the breach in the Dike, where the stream from above passed out, and the road beside it ran down from the Hornburg. The rampart loomed suddenly before them, a high shadow beyond a dark pit. As they rode up a sentinel challenged them.
“The Lord of the Mark rides to Helm’s Gate,” Eomer answered. “I, Eomer son of Eomund, speak.”
“This is good tidings beyond hope,” said the sentinel. “Hasten! The enemy is on your heels, indeed we have already had to repel several interlopers.”
The host passed through the breach and halted on the sloping sward above. They now learned to their joy that Erkenbrand had left many men to hold Helm’s Gate, and more had since escaped thither with Elfhelm.
“Maybe, we have a thousand fit to fight on foot” said Gamling, an old man, the leader of those that watched the Dike. “But most of them have seen too many winters, as I have, or too few, as my son’s son here. What news of Erkenbrand? Word came yesterday that he was retreating hither with all that is left of the best Riders of Westfold. But he has not come.”
“I fear that he will not come now,” said Eomer. “Our scouts have gained no news of him, and the enemy fills all the valley behind us.”
“I would that he had escaped,” said Theoden. “He was a mighty man. In him lived again the valour of Helm the Hammerhand. But we cannot await him here. We must draw all our forces now behind the walls. Are you well stored? We bring little provision, for we rode forth with little time to prepare ourselves for a siege.”
“Behind us in the caves of the Deep are three parts of the folk of Westfold, old and young, children and women,” said Gamling. ‘But great store of food, and many beasts and their fodder, have also been gathered there. In addition the supplies sent here weekly for the past two moons have been put to use, all the food being now preserved, weapons spaced out throughout the fortress ready for use.”
“What supplies are these?” asked Theoden. “I had no knowledge of this. Was this your doing Eomer?”
“It is not,” said Eomer. “I know not from whence they came but their presence is welcome. They are burning or despoiling all that is left in the vale.”
At this Grima moved forward. “Your pardon sire, I did not raise this with you earlier for I did not know if any good would come of it, but during my final days in Orthanc after Saruman’s hold had been broken I sent word to all with whom Isengard had business with, telling them that the White Wizard wished for a quarter of all goods to be delivered here. Once they heard the order was claimed to be from Saruman not one questioned it.”
Theoden laughed, “That was well done Grima. The serpent has turned to bite the hand of its handler. This deed may save many lives before this battle is done.”
The king and his Riders passed on. Before the causeway that crossed the stream they dismounted. In a long file they led their horses up the ramp and passed within the gates of the Hornburg. There they were welcomed again with joy and renewed hope by Elfhelm, who at once yielded command of the fortress to his liege; for now there were men enough to man both the burg and the barrier wall.
Quickly Eomer set his men in readiness. The king and the men of his household were in the Hornburg, and there also were many of the Westfold-men. But on the Deeping Wall and its tower, and behind it, Eomer arrayed most of the strength that he had, for here the defence seemed more doubtful, if the assault were determined and in great force. Aragorn went with Eomer there, as did Merry who followed along wishing for all the world that no-one would take any notice of him and yet not wanting to be forgot and left behind. The horses were led far up the Deep under such guard as could be spared. Legolas went up to the Hornburg sat above on the parapet where his vantage was best, fingering his bow, and peering out into the gloom.
The Deeping Wall was twenty feet high, and so thick that four men could walk abreast along the top, sheltered by a parapet over which only a tall man could look. Here and there were clefts in the stone through which men could shoot. This battlement could be reached by a stair running down from a door in the outer court of the Hornburg; three flights of steps led also up on to the wall from the Deep behind; but in front it was smooth, and the great stones of it were set with such skill that no foothold could be found at their joints, and at the top they hung over like a sea-delved cliff.
A slow time passed. Far down in the valley scattered fires still burned. The hosts of Isengard were advancing in silence now. Their torches could be seen winding up the coomb in many lines.
Suddenly from the Dike yells and screams, and the fierce battle-cries of men broke out. Flaming brands appeared over the brink and clustered thickly at the breach. Then they scattered and vanished. Men came galloping back over the field and up the ramp to the gate of the Hornburg. The rearguard of the Westfolders had been driven in.
“The enemy is at hand!” they said. “We loosed every arrow that we had, and filled the Dike with Orcs. But it will not halt them long. Already they are scaling the bank at many points, thick as marching ants. But we have taught them not to carry torches.”
It was now past midnight. The sky was utterly dark, and the stillness of the heavy air foreboded storm. Suddenly the clouds were seared by a blinding flash. Branched lightning smote down upon the eastward hills. For a staring moment the watchers on the walls saw all the space between them and the Dike lit with white light: it was boiling and crawling with black shapes. some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields. Hundreds and hundreds more were pouring over the Dike and through the breach. The dark tide flowed up to the walls from cliff to cliff. Thunder rolled in the valley. Rain came lashing down.
Arrows thick as the rain came whistling over the battlements, and fell clinking and glancing on the stones. Some found a mark. The assault on Helm’s Deep had begun, but no sound or challenge was heard within; no answering arrows came.
The assailing hosts halted, foiled by the silent menace of rock and wall. Ever and again the lightning tore aside the darkness. Then the Orcs screamed, waving spear and sword, and shooting a cloud of arrows at any that stood revealed upon the battlements; and the men of the Mark amazed looked out, as it seemed to them, upon a great field of dark corn, tossed by a tempest of war, and every ear glinted with barbed light.
Brazen trumpets sounded. The enemy surged forward, some against the Deeping Wall, other towards the causeway and the ramp that led up to the Hornburg-gates. There the hugest Orcs were mustered, and the wild men of the Dunland fells. A moment they hesitated and then on they came. The lightning flashed, and blazoned upon every helm and shield the ghastly hand of Isengard was seen: They reached the summit of the rock; they drove towards the gates.
Then at last an answer came: a storm of arrows met them, and a hail of stones. They wavered, broke, and fled back; and then charged again, broke and charged again; and each time, like the incoming sea, they halted at a higher point. Again trumpets rang, and a press of roaring men leaped forth. They held their great shields above them like a roof, while in their midst they bore two trunks of mighty trees. Behind them orc-archers crowded, sending a hail of darts against the bowmen on the walls. They gained the gates. The trees, swung by strong arms, smote the timbers with a rending boom. If any man fell, crushed by a stone hurtling from above, two others sprang to take his place. Again and again the great rams swung and crashed.
Eomer and Aragorn stood together on the Deeping Wall. They heard the roar of voices and the thudding of the rams; and then in a sudden flash of light they beheld the peril of the gates.
“Come!” said Aragorn. “This is the hour when we draw swords together!”
Running like fire, they sped along the wall, and up the steps, and passed into the outer court upon the Rock. As they ran they gathered a handful of stout swordsmen. There was a small postern-door that opened in an angle of the burg-wall on the west, where the cliff stretched out to meet it. On that side a narrow path ran round towards the great gate, between the wall and the sheer brink of the Rock. Together Eomer and Aragorn sprang through the door, their men close behind. The swords flashed from the sheath as one.
“Guthwine!” cried Eomer. “Guthwine for the Mark!”
“Anduril!” cried Aragorn. “Andúril for the Dúnedain!”
Charging from the side, they hurled themselves upon the wild men. Anduril rose and fell, gleaming with white fire. A shout went up from wall and tower: “Anduril! Anduril goes to war. The Blade that was Broken shines again!”
Dismayed the rammers let fall the trees and turned to fight; but the wall of their shields was broken as by a lightning-stroke, and they were swept away, hewn down, or cast over the Rock into the stony stream below. The orc-archers shot wildly and then fled.
For a moment Eomer and Aragorn halted before the gates. The thunder was rumbling in the distance now. The lightning flickered still, far off among the mountains in the South. A keen wind was blowing from the North again. The clouds were torn and drifting, and stars peeped out; and above the hills of the Coomb-side the westering moon rode, glimmering yellow in the storm-wrack.
“We did not come too soon,” said Aragorn, looking at the gates. Their great hinges and iron bars were wrenched and bent; many of their timbers were cracked.
“Yet we cannot stay here beyond the walls to defend them,” said Eomer. “Look!” He pointed to the causeway. Already a great press of Orcs and Men were gathering again beyond the stream. Arrows whined, and skipped on the stones about them. “Come! We must get back and see what we can do to pile stone and beam across the gates within. Come now!”
They turned and ran. At that moment some dozen Orcs that had lain motionless among the slain leaped to their feet, and came silently and swiftly behind. Two flung themselves to the ground at Eomer’s heels, tripped him, and in a moment they were on top of him. But a small dark figure that none had observed sprang out of the shadows and gave a shout: For the Shire! A small sharp blade swung and swept back. Two Orcs fell motionless. The rest fled.
Eomer struggled to his feet, even as Aragorn ran back to his aid.
The postern was closed again, the iron door was barred and piled inside with stones. When all were safe within, Eomer turned: “I thank you, Meriadoc son of Saradoc!” he said. “I did not know that you were with us in the sortie. But oft the unbidden guest proves the best company. How came you there?”
“I followed you to shake off sleep,” said Merry; “but I saw the hillmen and they seemed to be quite over large for me, so I sat beside a stone to see your sword-play.”
“I shall not find it easy to repay you,” said Eomer.
“There may be many a chance before the night is over,” said the hobbit. “But I might be contented for now with a small bite to eat, I can swear to it that I can feel myself wasting away.”
Eomer laughed. “I think some food might be managed. Come, let us go seek it out together.”
The sky now was quickly clearing and the sinking moon was shining brightly. But the light brought little hope to the Riders of the Mark. The enemy before them seemed to have grown rather than diminished, still more were pressing up from the valley through the breach. The sortie upon the Rock gained only a brief respite. The assault on the gates was redoubled. Against the Deeping Wall the hosts of Isengard roared like a sea. Orcs and hillmen swarmed about its feet from end to end. Ropes with grappling hooks were hurled over the parapet faster than men could cut them or fling them back. Hundreds of long ladders were lifted up. Many were cast down in ruin, but many more replaced them, and Orcs sprang up them like apes in the dark forests of the South. Before the wall’s foot the dead and broken were piled like shingle in a storm; ever higher rose the hideous mounds, and still the enemy came on.
The men of Rohan grew weary. All their arrows were spent, and every shaft was shot; their swords were notched, and their shields were riven. Three times Aragorn and Éomer rallied them, and three times Andúril flamed in a desperate charge that drove the enemy from the wall.
Then a clamour arose in the Deep behind. Orcs had crept like rats through the culvert through which the stream flowed out. There they had gathered in the shadow of the cliffs, until the assault above was hottest and nearly all the men of the defence had rushed to the wall’s top. Then they sprang out. Already some had passed into the jaws of the Deep and were among the horses, fighting with the guards.
Down from the wall leapt Eomer and Aragorn, leading several men of the Westfold off the wall and into the enemy fighting in the Deep. From his position atop the Hornburg, Legolas’s eye followed them as they charged into the horde issuing from the culvert. The Sindarin loosed an arrow into the newest foe to emerge, sending the Hillman sprawling in the water flowing out the drain. Too quickly the melee below frothed and boiled so he could not safely get a shot off and so he turned to survey the battlements of the Hornburg, picking off Orcs where he could as they ascended their great ladders, husbanding his arrows with judicious care. As he loosed another, Legolas thought how with even a hundred good archers of Mirkwood, he would be able to make this a fortress to reckoned with indeed. The Rohirrim had good bowmen after their fashion, but there were too few, and their discipline after the initial volley was far too loose, and now they had expended all their shafts in their zeal.
Legolas’s eye caught a glint of gold in the gloom, as the armour and shield of Theoden caught the torchlight. The king led his men himself, going up and down the battlements and walls, wielding Herugrim where the fighting was thickest, shouting encouragements and praise to his faithful Rohirrim, whose strength and valour always revived when he came to them. But each time their renewed vigour held out shorter than the time before, and each time the enemy was driven back less and less. Every ladder that was thrown down was replaced by two others, every foe smote was followed by another pair. The dim light of the night did not hinder Legolas’s aim, and yet he could not but wish the dawn would come soon.
A great cry drifted up from the Deep, and Legolas looked and saw a host of men sallying forth out of the mouth of the Glittering Caves into the mass of foes issuing from the culvert, catching them as in a vice between the men from the Deep and those from the Walls. Rising above the roar of voices and clashing of blades floated two voices calling out in Sindarin one to another: “Odog! Tolodh! Neder!” and then the other: “Tolodh! Neder! Pae!”. The clear tones of that tongue cut through the harsh cries of the Men and Orcs below and seemed as music to Legolas’s hearing. Looking again, he saw two figures dancing through the host of Isengard, wielding thin blades of starlight that cut deep into the ranks of the enemy before them. He smiled to himself, for it seemed as though the sons of Elrond had almost made this siege a game, keeping count of the number of foes that fell before them. “Minib!” He was almost envious of their sport and had to mind himself not to call back with his own tally, one that this far surpassed both of theirs combined. “Yneg!” The tide of enemies seemed to be turning under the fresh counter-blow from the men coming from the Caves. Smiling to himself, Legolas nocked another arrow and sent an Uruk back off the crest of the ladder it had just ascended. There would be enough enemies to go around for any with the stomach for such butchery this night.
Eomer and Aragorn leant wearily on their swords. Away on the left the crash and clamour of the battle on the Rock rose loud again. But the Hornburg still held fast, like an island in the sea. Its gates lay in ruin; but over the barricade of beams and stones within no enemy as yet had passed.
Aragorn looked at the pale stars, and at the moon, now sloping behind the western hills that enclosed the valley. “This is a night as long as years,” he said. “How long will the day tarry?”
“Dawn is not far off,” said Gamling, who had now climbed up beside him. “But dawn will not help us, I fear.”
“Yet dawn is ever the hope of men,” said Aragorn.
“But these creatures of Isengard, these half-orcs and goblin-men that the foul craft of Saruman has bred, they will not quail at the sun,” said Gamling. “And neither will the wild men of the hills. Do you not hear their voices?”
“I hear them,” said Eomer; “but they are only the scream of birds and the bellowing of beasts to my ears.”
“Nonetheless day will bring hope to me,” said Aragorn. “Is it not said that no foe has ever taken the Hornburg, if men defended it?”
“So the minstrels say,” said Eomer.
‘Then let us defend it, and hope!’ said Aragorn.
Even as they spoke there came a blare of trumpets. Then there was a crash and a flash of flame and smoke. The waters of the Deeping-stream poured out hissing and foaming: they were choked no longer, a gaping hole was blasted in the wall. A host of dark shapes poured in.
“Devilry of Saruman!” cried Aragorn. “They have crept in the culvert again, while we talked, and they have lit the fire of Orthanc beneath our feet. Elendil, Elendil!” he shouted, as he leaped down into the breach; but even as he did so a hundred ladders were raised against the battlements. Over the wall and under the wall the last assault came sweeping like a dark wave upon a hill of sand. The defence was swept away. Some of the Riders were driven back, further and further into the Deep, falling and fighting as they gave way, step by step, towards the caves. Others cut their way back towards the citadel.
A broad stairway, climbed from the Deep up to the Rock and the rear-gate of the Hornburg. Near the bottom stood Aragorn. In his hand still Anduril gleamed, and the terror of the sword for a while held back the enemy, as one by one all who could gain the stair passed up towards the gate. Behind on the upper steps knelt Legolas. His bow was bent, but one gleaned arrow was all that he had left, and he peered out now, ready to shoot the first Orc that should dare to approach the stair.
“All who can have now got safe within, Aragorn,” he called. “Come back!”
Aragorn turned and sped up the stair; but as he ran he stumbled in his weariness. At once his enemies leapt forward. Up came the Orcs, yelling, with their long arms stretched out to seize him. The foremost fell with Legolas’s last arrow in his throat. but the rest sprang over him. Then a great boulder, cast from the outer wall above, crashed down upon the stair, and hurled them back into the Deep. Aragorn gained the door, and swiftly it clanged to behind him.
“Things go ill, my friends,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow with his arm.
“Ill enough,” said Legolas, “but not yet hopeless, while we have you with us. Where is Merry? And what of Elladan and Elrohir?”
“I do not know.” said Aragorn. “I last saw them fighting on the ground behind the wall, but the enemy swept us apart.”
“Alas! That is evil news,” said Legolas.
“Merry is stout and strong beyond his size, and the sons of Elrond are with him,” said Aragorn. “Let us hope that they will escape back to the caves. There they would be safe for a while. Safer than we. Besides, such a refuge underground would be to the liking of a halfling.”
“That must be my hope” said Legolas. “But I wish that they had all come this way. I am fond of Meriadoc, his cheer and good humours would be much appreciated this night. Moreover I desired to tell the twins that my tale bests theirs at thirty-nine.”
“If they win back to the caves, they will pass your count,” laughed Aragorn. “Never did I see blades so wielded. And fear not for Merry’s good humours, hobbits are a sturdy people especially when all the food one might hope for is stored in their place of refuge.”
“Then I am comforted at the thought of him being so well provided for. But now I must go and seek some arrows,” said Legolas. “Would that this night would end, and I could have better light for shooting.”
Aragorn now passed into the citadel. There to his dismay he learned that Eomer had not reached the Hornburg.
“Nay, he did not come to the Rock,” said one of the outriders of the Westfold-men, “I last saw him gathering men about him and fighting in the mouth of the Deep. Gamling was with him, and the Halfling; but I could not come to them.”
Aragorn strode on through the inner court, and mounted to a high chamber in the tower. There stood the king, dark against a narrow window, looking out upon the vale.
“What is the news, Aragorn?” he said.
“The Deeping Wall is taken, lord, and all the defense swept away; but many have escaped hither to the Rock.”
“Is Eomer here?”
“No, lord. But many of your men retreated into the Deep; and some say that Eomer was amongst them. In the narrows they may hold back the enemy and come within the caves. What hope they may have then I do not know.”
“More than we. Good provision, it is said. And the air is wholesome there because of the outlets through fissures in the rock far above. None can force an entrance against determined men. They may hold out long.”
“But the Orcs have brought a devilry from Orthanc,” said Aragorn. “They have a blasting fire, and with it they took the Wall. If they cannot come in the caves, they may seal up those that are inside. But now we must turn all our thoughts to our own defence.”
“I fret in this prison,” said Theoden. “If I could have set a spear in rest, riding before my men upon the field, maybe I could have felt again the joy of battle, and so ended. But I serve little purpose here.”
“Here at least you are guarded in the strongest fastness of the Mark,” said Aragorn. “More hope we have to defend you in the Hornburg than in Edoras, or even at Dunharrow in the mountains.”
“It is said that the Hornburg has never fallen to assault,” said Theoden; “but now my heart is doubtful. The world changes, and all that once was strong now proves unsure. How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate? Had I known that the strength of Isengard was grown so great, maybe l should not so rashly have ridden forth to meet it, for all the arts and aids of Grima. His counsel seems not now so good as it did under the morning sun.”
“Do not judge the counsel of Grima, until all is over, lord,” said Aragorn. “His past treason may have been great, but his love for you runs as deep as that of any other man, and he is no fool.”
“The end will not be long,” said the king. “But I will not end here, taken like an old badger in a trap. Snowmane and the horses of my guard are in the inner court. When dawn comes, I will bid men sound Helm’s horn, and I will ride forth. Even Grima has taken up the sword and would ride out with me. Will you ride with me then, son of Arathorn, as you did with Thengel, my sire? Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song-if any be left to sing of us hereafter.”
“I will ride with you,” said Aragorn.
Taking his leave, he returned to the walls, and passed round all their circuit, enheartening the men, and lending aid wherever the assault was hot. Legolas went with him. Blasts of fire leaped up from below shaking the stones. Grappling-hooks were hurled, and ladders raised. Again and again the Orcs gained the summit of the outer wall, and again the defenders cast them down. Whenever time allowed, Aragorn lent aid to the bands of healers patrolling the battlements, washing and binding up wounds of those who could fight wherever they could, and helping those who could not off the walls, where they might find shelter and rest.
At last Aragorn stood above the great gates, heedless of the darts of the enemy. As he looked forth he saw the eastern sky grow pale. Then he raised his empty hand, palm outward in token of parley.
The Orcs yelled and jeered. “Come down! Come down!” they cried. “If you wish to speak to us, come down! Bring out your king! We are the fighting Uruk-hai. We will fetch him from his hole, if he does not come. Bring out your skulking king!”
“The king of the Mark stays or comes at his own will,” said Aragorn.
“Then what are you doing here?” they answered. “Why do you look out? Do you wish to see the greatness of our army? We are the fighting Uruk-hai.”
“I looked out to see the dawn,” said Aragorn.
“What of the dawn?” they jeered. “We are the Uruk-hai: we do not stop the fight for night or day, for fair weather or for storm. We come to kill, by sun or moon. What of the dawn?”
“None knows what the new day shall bring him,” said Aragorn. “Get you gone, ere it turn to your evil.”
“Get down or we will shoot you from the wall,” they cried in their harsh voices. “This is no parley. You have nothing to say.”
“I have still this to say,” answered Aragorn. “No enemy has yet taken the Hornburg. Depart, or not one of you will be spared. Not one will be left alive to take back tidings to the North. You do not know your peril.”
So great a power and royalty was revealed in Aragorn, as he stood there alone above the ruined gates before the host of his enemies, that many of the wild men paused, and looked back over their shoulders to the valley, and some looked up doubtfully at the sky. But the Orcs laughed with loud voices; and a hail of darts and arrows whistled over the wall, as Aragorn leaped down.
There was a roar and a blast of fire. The archway of the gate above which he had stood a moment before crumbled and crashed in smoke and dust. The barricade was scattered as if by a thunderbolt. Aragorn ran to the king’s tower.
But even as the gate fell, and the Orcs about it yelled, preparing to charge, a murmur arose behind them. like a wind in the distance, and it grew to a clamour of many voices crying strange news in the dawn. The Orcs upon the Rock, hearing the rumour of dismay, wavered and looked back. And then, sudden and terrible, from the tower above, the sound of the great horn of Helm rang out.
All that heard that sound trembled. Many of the Orcs cast themselves on their faces and covered their ears with their claws. Back from the Deep the echoes came, blast upon blast, as if on every cliff and hill a mighty herald stood. But on the walls men looked up, listening with wonder; for the echoes did not die. Ever the horn-blasts wound on among the hills; nearer now and louder they answered one to another, blowing fierce and free.
“Helm! Helm!” the Riders shouted. “Helm is arisen and comes back to war. Helm for Theoden King!”
And with that shout the king came. His horse was white as snow, golden was his shield, and his spear was long. At his right hand was Aragorn, Elendil’s heir, behind him rode the lords of the House of Eorl the Young. Light sprang in the sky. Night departed.
“Forth Eorlingas!” With a cry and a great noise they charged. Down from the gates they roared, over the causeway they swept, and they drove through the hosts of Isengard as a wind among grass. Behind them from the Deep came the stern cries of men issuing from the caves, driving forth the enemy. Out poured all the men that were left upon the Rock. And ever the sound of blowing horns echoed in the hills.
Theoden King of the Mark had nearly reached the Dike and just beyond lay the main force of the Dunlandings, and there their spearmen were gathered about the standard of their chieftain. And he looked out, and in the growing light he saw the banner of the king, and that it was far ahead of the battle with few men about it. Then he was filled with a red wrath and shouted aloud, and displaying his standard, black boar upon scarlet, he came against the white horse and the green with great press of men; and the thrusting of the spears of the Dunlandings was like a glitter of stars.
Then Theoden was aware of him, and would not wait for his onset, but crying to Snowmane he charged headlong to greet him. Great was the clash of their meeting. But the white fury of the Northmen burned the hotter, and more skilled was their knighthood with long spears and bitter. Fewer were they but they clove through the Dunlandings like a fire-bolt in a forest. Right through the press drove Theoden Thengel’s son, and his spear was shivered as he threw down their chieftain. Out swept his sword, and he spurred to the standard, hewed staff and bearer; and the black boar foundered. Then all that was left unslain of their guard turned and fled far away.
But lo! suddenly in the midst of the glory of the king, his golden shield was shaken. A great captain of the Uruk-hai leapt forth out of the mass of the Dunlanding guard and smote Snowmane under the his belly.
“To me! To me!” cried Theoden. “Up Eorlingas!” But Snowmane wild with terror and pain stood up on high, fighting with the air, and then with a great scream he crashed upon his side: a black blade had pierced him. The king fell beneath him. And swifter than any could catch, nay swifter than any could see, the wicked scimitar of the Uruk came down on the golden breastplate, piecing it with its cruel edge.
But Theoden was not utterly forsaken. The knights of his house lay slain about him, or else pushed away by the press of foes. Yet one stood there still; right through the charge from the Deep Merry had been borne unharmed behind Eomer, until he was thrown from Firefoot in that steed’s terror of the enemy’s spears. And as the Uruk champion raised his blade for the final blow, he staggered forward with a cry of bitter pain, and his stroke went wide, driving into the ground. Merry’s sword had stabbed him from behind, shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew of his broad back. He fell and Merry’s blade followed, pinning that Uruk to the ground beneath him.
And there stood Meriadoc the hobbit in the midst of the slain, blinking like an owl in the daylight, for tears blinded him; and through a mist he looked on the face of the king, fallen in the midst of his glory. For Snowmane in his agony had rolled away from him again; yet he was the bane of his master.
Then Merry stooped and lifted his hand to kiss it, and lo! Theoden opened his eyes, and they were clear, and he spoke in a quiet voice though laboured.
“Farewell, Master Holbytla!” he said. “My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black boar. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!”
Merry could not speak, but wept anew. “Forgive me, lord,” he said at last, “for my blade was too slow and my courage too faint to save you.”
The old king smiled. “Grieve not! It is forgiven.” He closed his eyes, and Merry bowed beside him. Presently he spoke again. “Where is Eomer? For my eyes darken, and I would see him ere I go. He must be king after me. And I would send word to Eowyn. She, she would not have me leave her, and now I shall not see her again, dearer than daughter.”
And thereupon Eomer rode up, and with him came the knights of the household that still lived and had now mastered their horses. Eomer leaped from the saddle, and grief and dismay fell upon him as he came to the king’s side and stood there in silence.
Slowly Theoden opened his eyes. Seeing Eomer next to him he summoned what strength remained and cried aloud “Hail, Eomer King of the Mark! Ride now to victory! Bid Eowyn farewell!” And so he died. And those who stood by wept, crying: “Theoden King! Theoden King!” But Éomer said to them: “Mourn not overmuch! Mighty was the fallen, meet was his ending. When his mound is raised, women then shall weep. War now calls us!” Yet he himself wept as he spoke. “Deorwine, take command of his knights. Remain here,” he said; “and bear his body in honour from the field, lest the battle overtake it.”
And as he spoke his visage was overtaken by a fey mood. Then without taking counsel or waiting for the approach of the men of the Deep, he spurred headlong back to the front of the host of Rohan and blew a horn, and cried aloud for the onset. Across the Deeping rang his clear voice calling: “Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world’s ending!” And with that the host surged forward once again. But the Rohirrim sang no more. Death they cried with one voice loud and terrible, and gathering speed like a great tide their battle swept about their fallen king and passed, roaring away northwards.
On they rode, the king and his companions. Captains and champions fell or fled before them. Neither orc nor man now withstood them. Their backs were to the swords and spears of the Riders and their faces to the valley. They cried and wailed, for fear and great wonder had come upon them with the rising of the day and the fierceness of the charge.
So King Eomer clove his path to the great Dike. There the company halted. Light grew bright about them. Shafts of the sun flared above the eastern hills and glimmered on their spears. But they sat silent on their horses, and they gazed down upon the Deeping-Coomb. There now cowered the proud hosts of Saruman, in terror of the new king and in terror of host. They streamed down from Helm’s Gate until all above the Dike was empty of them, but below it they were packed like swarming flies. Vainly they crawled and clambered about the walls of the coom. seeking to escape. Upon the east and west too sheer and stony was the valley’s sides; and from the north, their final doom approached.
There suddenly had appeared a man tall and strong. His shield was red. As he came to the valley’s brink, he set to his lips a great black horn and blew a ringing blast, his spear shining in the rising sun. Over the low hills behind him the horns were sounding. And hastening down the toward the coomb were a thousand men on foot; their shields set as a wall, with tall spears and bright swords were in their hands.
“Erkenbrand!” the Riders shouted. “Erkenbrand!”
The hosts of Isengard roared, swaying this way and that, turning from fear to fear. Again the horn sounded from the tower. Down from the hills leaped Erkenbrand, lord of Westfold. Down through the breach of the Dike charged the king’s company. The King of the Mark was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness. The wild men fell on their faces before him. The Orcs reeled and screamed and cast aside both sword and spear. Like a black smoke driven by a mounting wind they fled from one fear then the other, and to the Walls of Isengard, none of that host ever came again.