17. Helm's Deep
"Do you think they will come in here, Éomer? Do you think they will come in here and… kill us?" Éowyn was huddled in a blanket that looked huge on her tiny frame. She was nine years old, and the long hard winter and ensuing lack of food as well as their narrow escape to Helm's Deep had taken their toll on his little sister. She looked scrawny like one of the peasants' children, instead of a well-fed member of the royal family, and she looked tired… and scared. Scared to death. And his sister was not one to be frightened easily. Even though Éomer, from the superiority of his thirteen years, liked to tease his younger sibling on occasion, he would also be the first to defend her against others as the 'bravest girl he knew'.
And she was, undoubtedly. Apart from their parents' deaths, there was hardly an incident Éomer could remember when he had seen his little sister cry. Pain certainly did not make her. There had been numerous occasions apart from the usual scraped knees and bruises children collected on their way to adolescence when he had been proud of her. Once a horse that had gone wild in the stables had bitten her. On another occasion, she had taken a bad fall from a horse and broken her arm, and yet she had always clenched her teeth, and even though her eyes had been moist and betraying her pain, not a single tear had made it down her cheeks. No, pain, obviously, could not touch his little sister. She was not afraid of it.
She was afraid of the wild men and ghoulish creatures outside their temporary refuge however, and again, Éomer could hardly blame her, for he was afraid himself. The sounds of the battle, the terrible grunting and roaring, the cries of the wounded and dying in the pitch-black dead of night just outside the caves – though distant - were hard to listen to… all the more since so many of the people they knew and cared for were outside, fighting. Like… their uncle... and their cousin. It also did not help that they had been confined to this sparsely decorated room, which was little more than an empty niche built into the rock shortly before the path led into the mountains. It was the safest place possible, because the enemy would have to plough through their entire army first to get here, built over a century ago to accommodate the present and succeeding kings' families in times of war, and hard to find. It had one obvious entrance and a hidden one, one that had been built in laborious work over the course of years, a secret passage through the granite nobody knew of. Yes, they were safe here...
Still, Éomer rather wished they were sitting in the main-cave along with their friends, talking with them to keep the fear at bay, mocking death and not letting panic rule over their emotions. He had tried to talk to their uncle about his idea, but King Théoden did not have the mind to listen to a 13-year old boy then when he had to prepare for battle. So all they were left with to keep them company was a grim-looking guard who did not speak with them at all. Inwardly, Éomer suspected his uncle had left the man with his niece and nephew in order to take care of them in case the battle went ill. Now, that was a truly frightening thought! He shoved it into the back of his mind and concentrated on his sister instead, who was sitting in the back of the rectangular room with her back to the wall, hugging herself.
He ripped himself out of his brooding stupor and fought to think of some encouraging words.
"We are safe here, Éowyn. No enemy has ever breached the Deeping Wall… let alone entered the Keep! Nothing will happen to us… and if they'd ever get in here, I would kill them!" Unwittingly, the fingers of his right hand had been playing with the hilt of his sword the whole time, and now he drew it and waved it around in a few exercise moves, meant to calm down his sister... as well as himself. It was his first real sword, a heavy, beautifully worked piece of Rohirric craftsmanship with bronze horses rearing on both sides of the blade. His uncle had given it to him only a few months ago on his thirteenth birthday, with a slight smile and the words that he was a man now, a true warrior with his own sword, ready to defend the Mark against all its enemies. But even then, his great joy had been mingled with a touch of sadness, as most things had been in his adolescence so far: usually, swords were passed on as an heirloom within each family from one generation to the next, and he had always looked forward to one day carrying his father's… but it had been lost in his ill-fated last battle, never to be retrieved. Chances were that some filthy orc was carrying the noble blade into battle now against those it had been made to protect. A depressing thought. A thought that filled him with rage.
Pushing back the melancholic thoughts about their once happy family, Éomer had to admit that he still had been incredibly proud over his new possession. 'Guthwine', he had called the shining blade, as every sword needed to be named by its owner, and he had hardly been able to wait until he could show it to his lower-standing friends, who had had a hard time at hiding their jealousy. He had found it almost impossible to lay it down in fact, until Théodred had jested it would stay glued to his hand for all eternity lest he'd sheath it every now and then. Always having a sword ready for battle, his older cousin had smirked, would maybe impress his enemies later on, but still pose a serious hindrance in his future interactions with the ladies. Everybody had laughed and Éomer's cheeks had flushed with embarrassment, even as his cousin – having noticed his discomfort - had ruffled his hair and proclaimed that he could already see 'Guthwine' becoming the most sought-after possession of the Mark, as it would certainly become the heirloom of one of the greatest warriors of Rohan. That remark had turned Éomer's face an even deeper shade of crimson, but still, the memory of that day was something he treasured.
Surfacing from his memory, Éomer heard his sister snort at his boastful last remark. Even at her young age, she hated being treated like a dumb child who knew nothing of the ways of life, especially by her always well-meaning, but still sometimes patronising brother. All she ever wanted to hear was the truth, no matter how grim. Somehow, that little annoyed sound made Éomer feel bad, and he picked himself up to walk over to her and, sitting down next to her on the cold ground, put an arm around her shoulder in a protective, comforting way.
"I would protect you from them, little bird," he whispered, his eyes on the guard who had turned his back on them. "For as long as I could. But it will not be necessary. They will not come in here. Théodred and our uncle will drive them away. They are great warriors. And there are also Elfhelm, and Grimbold, and Gamling..." He gave her a slight squeeze... and jumped as he suddenly found himself looking into the adult Éowyn's eyes.
"Aye, brother... you would protect me with your life. I know that." There was a smile in her stormy eyes, a rare enough sight, and one he had not expected after all the accusations he had heard from her in the wake of his captivity.
'But Elfhelm said they had been Gríma's doing. That they were not real…' Was this reality? She felt real enough in his arms as he returned the hearty embrace and then looked at her, still insecure.
"Éowyn… I must apologise. I never meant to keep you like a beast in a cage. I never wanted to--"
"Hush, mighty king of Rohan!" Her smile widened as she placed a finger on his lips to close them. "It was but in your imagination. I never said that, and I never thought that, either… and I know that everything you ever did was in order to keep me safe. I would have never thought about complaining to Wormtongue about you, and I never thought that your injury was well deserved. I valued your protectiveness and care, brother. I truly did. It made me realise each day just how much you loved me. Wormtongue has always been a notorious liar, and we both have known it for years. The snake wanted to break you, and since you're a fierce and valiant warrior with hardly any deficiencies, he took the only approach he knew would work. Your only vulnerable spot: your honour… and your kin. He knew exactly where to pry his greedy little fingers in to hurt you the most. Nothing that he said was true. You must believe me, Éomer!" Her hand caressing his face, she whispered into his ear: "I love you, brother."
For a while, they just held each other, comforting each other, and it was as it had been in their youth, a good, pure feeling of closeness and understanding. Finally, Éowyn looked up again and began to free herself from his arms. A knowing smile played around the corners of her mouth as she stood up and motioned for him to follow.
"There is someone I would like you to meet…"
"They are coming! Marshal Elfhelm! They are already in the valley!"
The words tore through the void Éomer had been drifting through for a time-span he could not name. They confused him. Elfhelm? Elfhelm was outside, at their uncles side, fighting! What-- He woke with a start, just as the heavy oaken door was f thrown open and a breathless Arnhelm burst into the room. The voice, he noticed as he fought to open his eyes for a brief moment, belonged to him.
"Arnhelm!" his friend's alarmed voice came from the other side. The chair the marshal had been sleeping in was pushed back against the wall as Elfhelm jumped to his feet. "What are you saying? They are in the valley? But how--"
"Approaching the ramp. It won't be long before they'll be here. We repaired the gate as best we could in the few hours, but--"
"Why were the fires not lit? They should have alerted us long ago!"
"Harrdrás said he tried, but the storm was too strong. He hardly made it back before the enemy reached his outpost."
Elfhelm shook his head in helpless frustration as he turned to the king. Was everything against them? "We must make for the caves, son, and fast!" Again addressing the esquire, Elfhelm went for the litter that was leaning at the wall. They had found it in the vacated healing room and taken it to the king's room where they now had good use for it. Éomer did not look to the marshal as if he was ready to take even one more step. "Summon two men to carry the king down, and make it fast."
Éomer's first instinct was to object, but he did not have to hear into his body for long before he had to admit – grudgingly – that he would have to swallow this indignity as well. Even sitting up by himself turned out to be a major battle. Cursing at his ineptitude, he scrambled pathetically with his feet to push himself up, but it was Elfhelm's strength that finally helped him to accomplish this deed. It was another fight to make it onto the litter.
"Let me help you, Sire," a female voice came from behind. The healer. She laid an arm around Éomer's waist and transferred some of his weight onto her shoulders. At last, they had the sweat-soaked king ready for transportation. Éomer just lay back and squeezed his eyes shut against the searing pain in his side as the esquire entered again, this time with two more men in his wake who immediately rushed over to their marshal.
"The men are ready, marshal. Battle will soon commence." He cleared his throat. "They are asking for you, my lord…"
"I am coming." Elfhelm motioned his men to take up the litter and rushed forth to hold open the door that led to the secret tunnel into the vast system of tunnels and caves. "Is it too late to man the wall of the Keep? I want Gríma to pay dearly for breaching the gate."
"We have five men with crossbows on the wall. You want them to stay there, or shall I send more?"
"Send five more men up. This might be our best chance to decimate them before we engage in head-on battle. But I want all of them off that wall before the gate is breached! We cannot afford to lose even one more man! Tell them to be careful! Also tell the rest to take up their positions in the caves. Make haste! I will join you in a moment!"
"Aye, Marshal!" Arnhelm gave his superior a curt nod and raced out of the room, shouting his orders even before he had reached the men. The flurry of frenzied activity filled the corridors of the fortress as the men left the room with their wounded king. Elfhelm eased open the door with one hand and kept it open until they had passed, then grasped his friend's hand as he was carried past.
"Éomer, I need to go. Árdwyne and my men will bring you to the hidden room – and we don't have time for your protest! You are in no condition to fight!" he added as he saw the king open his mouth for what he thought had to be objection. Éomer's voice was low with weakness, but determined.
"No protest. But I need a sword. If it comes to the worst..." He did not finish his sentence, but the meaning was clear. Elfhelm shuddered and just did not want to think about that possibility any further.
"Aye…I understand... And you shall have one. I'll order one of my men to-"
"Spare your man, my lord," the healer injected eagerly. Had she understood what Éomer wanted the sword for? Or was she thinking that he wanted it for the eventuality that an enemy actually made it this far into the caves? She, of all the people here, should see best that – in his current condition – the king would not even be able to fend off an orc-babe! "I can get it for him. I know where the armoury is, and I know where to find the hidden room. I shall need no guide. Let me do it."
"Very well, Árdwyne. Go then. But I need you back with me afterwards. You said you knew what to do with a bow."
She paled, but there was also a grim expression to her face Elfhelm liked. It was the face of a warrior. The gender did not matter: hers was the mindset they needed to have. After all, it had been a shieldmaiden who had slain Sauron's mightiest weapon, and if the people of Rohan wanted to survive, each and every one of them had to do their duty. In the battle they were faced with, every man - or woman - would count...
"Aye, my lord marshal. I know that well enough. I shall be back before long." She left. Sighing and hating himself for having to recruit women, Elfhelm turned back to the wounded king to give him a curt, reassuring nod.
"We shall see each other again soon, my friend... provided the Gods are in the mood." He turned to his men and motioned them to go. "Quick, take him down!" A moment later, his fast steps echoed through the corridors as he ran towards the ruckus that had begun in the hall behind the main gate.
"They repaired the gate, Master. But it will not hold for long." The orc's face was barely recognisable under the thick crust of ice, but now that its prey was finally within reach, the creature no longer seemed to care. Blood-lust was beginning to fill up every fibre of its being. Killing was what it had been bred for, and killing was where it found its greatest satisfaction.
Wormtongue had felt truly miserable for the last hours in the storm, too, frozen to the core, but the sight of the Hornburg straight ahead - even if it was but a faint shadow in the whirling snow and twilight - was enough to renew his strength one last time. The prospect of finding shelter from the elements alone was something to look forward to, even if they were headed straight into battle. But he was not worried about the battle. He had his strategy down, and the counsellor harboured no doubts that his host of Uruk-hai would tear into the few remaining refugees like starved wargs into a flock of sheep.
He narrowed his eyes as his gaze swept over the walls, searching for enemies, but the elements were against him. Still, it was safe to count that they were there, likely armed with range weapons, just waiting to pick his army off one by one. They had found the tracks of two guards from the watchtowers that marked the final approach to the fortress, had in fact almost captured the first one before he had made it onto his horse to alarm his trapped brethren. Why he hadn't simply lit the fire was beyond Gríma, but all the better for them. Maybe the storm had been blowing too hard for the flames to catch. Very well. Thus their prey would have less time to prepare for the fight. There could not be many left waiting for them. It would be over quick.
As he looked on, there was sudden movement at the gate, as it was opened and a herd of horses came charging down the ramp towards them. Excited bellows were exchanged behind him, and weapons raised. His Uruks were eager to kill something, and this was the first visible prey. It would be good for their morale. Get them into the right mood. He raised his arm in signal – and lowered it in an abrupt chopping motion. Arrows and bolts were released from bowstrings hundredfold, whispering death as they raced towards the fleeing horses. Just before they hit, their great grey leader, having almost reached the end of the ramp, jumped down on the inside of the curved ascend, as if he knew of the deadly hail coming their way. The others followed him in a brown and grey wave, and the arrows passed them by without hitting a single target.
The horses charged in a parallel line along the Deeping Wall, away from them. Already, they were almost out of reach and quickly disappearing in the whirling snow. Again, Wormtongue held up his arm, but this time to call his army back. As much as this first little failure angered him, there was no use in wasting their precious arrows on horses. They would need it for worthier targets soon enough…
"The horses made it past them!" Thor watched the great white cloud of whirling snow disappear behind the next ridge. To him, it was a good omen. They had not even lost a single horse. He didn't have to turn his head to know that the marshal was approaching him and kneeling down next to him on the wall of the Keep. Stone and the elements protected them from the enemy's eyes.
"How many, what do you say?"
"Visibility is very poor," the scout admitted. "But well over a hundred still, I would say. Look, part of them is heading for the other entrance now." He pointed a finger at a dark shape that separated from the main body of the advancing army to make for the breach in the wall in the deepening twilight.
"They'll soon learn that admittance there comes at a higher price than they're willing to pay," Elfhelm growled, hoping that the two men he had left to guard what was left of the tunnel would suffice. It would be a catastrophe if the Uruks were able to come at them from both sides. But why was he fretting? They had thoroughly blocked that tunnel. Two men were more than enough to hold it.
"Come, snake," he whispered, taking his own bow from his shoulder and fetching an arrow from the quiver, laying it on the string. Maybe, if he was lucky; fate would present him with a chance to kill Rohan's bane himself …
The procession of ghoulish creatures came to a halt at the foot of ramp, where Wormtongue raised a hand and turned his horse. As he faced his army, he was satisfied to find that bloodlust already glowered in their predatory eyes. Despite the hardships that lay behind them, they were now eager to fight.
"Listen, my fighting Uruk-hai! This is it – the reason why we have been fighting the elements for the last few days with barely a break. We wanted to chase down the accursed human filth that killed your brethren by the thousands, and avenge them. I promised you a bloodbath… a feast. And you shall have it, right now! The enemy, or rather, what is left of them, is waiting for us behind those walls. Before last year, the people of Rohan thought that these walls could never be breached by any foe… but your brethren already accomplished this unthinkable deed. They not only breached them, but they even made it all the way into the Hornburg, and I expect you to do no less. Even more, I expect you to find these cowards in their hiding places in the caverns, where they will no doubt try to evade battle altogether. You shall find them, you shall draw them out of their holes and you shall tear them apart! I have no further orders for you, for I know that you are as anxious as I am to make them suffer! There is only one demand I have: Do not kill the king if you find him there, and do not kill their leader, either. I suspect it must be a marshal. You will recognise him when you find him. Bring them to me alive. I have some personal business with both of them before we shall dispose of that filth. Everyone else you find beyond those walls – is yours! Go now, mightiest of the orc-race! Do what you do best – make the enemy fear you!"
A black wave of deadly accurate steel, raw power, sharp fangs and ferocious hate and hunger swept towards the scantily repaired main gate with a terrifying roar and all the single-minded purpose of one being with a hundred heads…
"Why have all the torches been lit? Wouldn't it be better if we waited for them in the dark where they couldn't see us?"
"Didn't you hear the marshal? The disadvantage would be ours. Orcs can see well in the dark, and they would smell us, too. – Sire? Sire, are you still with us?"
A grunt was all Éomer was able to answer. His thoughts were flowing apart as they hastened down the steep, narrow stairs of the secret entrance that went down from the back of the Hornburg into the caves. Twice they had almost let him fall when they bumped the litter into the wall, but now they had reached the main system and raced through the widening hall of glistening stalactites and stalagmites while the sound of the beginning battle echoed to them from the other entrance, reflected by the stone walls and multiplied, evoking the notion of a far greater number of enemies in the narrow tunnels than was actually coming at them. Still, they were seriously outmatched. What was coming at them was bad enough…
"Éomer? Here she is. You know her, don't you?"
He had been following his sister for a while now, not even surprised that they were in his tent again all of a sudden. Éowyn had pulled the flap aside for him and was waiting with a half-smile for him to pass through. Just what was his younger sibling up to? Knotting his eyebrows at her, Éomer risked a glance into the room… and froze. The delicate figure inside had her back turned on him, but all he had to see in order to recognise the artfully bound buckskin tunic and the flowing golden hair. The sight left him breathless and his eyes widened as he stared back at his sister. She was still smiling… and nodding for him to proceed.
"She wants to tell you something, brother… Go ahead. Fear not."
In the darkness of the narrow tunnel that led from the eastern part of the main cavern to the side-entrance, something could be heard on the other side of the barricade. Something heavy was scraping over the rock, dragging itself up. Muffled grunting echoed in the narrow space. The two heavily armed Rohirrim left to guard the tunnel raised their crossbows… as a dark shape blocked out the last remainders of the fading daylight…
Another turn. Deeper into the mountain. The torches were getting fewer and the spaces between them greater, the twilight deeper. The sounds of the battle sounded like they were coming to them all the way from the other end of the Ered Nimrais. A light draft of fresh air indicated that the secret path into the mountains behind the Hornburg was not so far away anymore. Harrdás, the man at the foot-end of the litter, turned another corner and saw with relief the roughly worked entrance to the last refuge. The room had been added to the system over a hundred years ago as the safest place to keep the kings' families in the times of battle. Now it would accommodate the king himself.
"My lord, we are there." No answer from Éomer. No reaction. Eomund's son kept his eyes closed, and no movement below the blanket they had spread over him indicated that he was still with them as the two men carried their burden over to the stand where they finally set the occupied litter down. "Careful, Fraccas. Let's not wake him. Good." They straightened and looked down on their fallen king in concern.
"I have a bad feeling about him…"
"Éomer is strong. And I firmly believe that he will come out of this even stronger." Harrdrás looked around in the confined room to see whether everything was set for the eventuality of a siege. Not that their marshal was counting on one. Erkenbrand's men had to come to their aid momentarily now, and Wormtongue probably knew that. He would force his way into the fortress with all ferocity he could muster. Harrdrás thought of the preparations Elfhelm had ordered and prayed to Eru that they would suffice to keep the upper hand over the foul flood that was about to invade Helm's Deep once again.
Satisfied with what he found, the wiry, wild-looking man turned to his taller subordinate.
"I have to go back. You stay here with him. Guard him with your life… although if they come this far, there will be nothing left to do anymore. If more than one's coming your way, kill him. Make it fast and painless … for they won't. " A deep breath as he turned to go. "May the Valar have mercy on our souls."
"They are coming through! Faster! Faster!"
The retreat was still organised, but hurried nonetheless as the men spurted through the empty corridors of the fortress, their steps reflected by the granite walls. Behind them, the main-gate shook under another heavy blow. An ominous creaking sound could be heard as wood planks gave way under raw Uruk-hai power.
Elfhelm raced down the narrow stairs three steps at a time. He had been on the wall of the Keep and managed to down three attackers before a hail of arrows had forced him to take cover. Others had been similarly successful, but now Gríma had organised his defence, and while a dozen of his half-orcs were pounding and throwing themselves against the weakened gate, the rest had their crossbows pointed upward and there was no way for anybody to stick his head over the wall without being shot at. They had inflicted all the damages that had been possible from this position. Time to retreat to the main site of the coming battle. Thor, at the back of his group, was locking the heavy oaken doors behind them, even though they all knew that they would not stop the nightmarish creatures on their heels for long. They had rehearsed the scenario time and time again over the last hours, and agreed that even what little time those barricades would grant them would be worth the risk of slowing down their own retreat.
The main cave. They reached it just as a thunderous inferno from above indicated that Grima's army was entering the fortress.
"Thor?" Elfhelm slipped on the wet rocks and almost fell as he ground to a halt, looking for his second-in-command. A faint, telltale scent reached his nostrils and made him worry again. They had prepared a nasty little surprise for their enemy with the oil they had found in the Hornburg. Most of it they had poured into the shallow pools of water to ignite it as soon as the main body of the enemy waded through it, but in some parts of the vast system of caves and narrow tunnels, they had used it quite extensively. Their task was to draw the approaching Uruks to those parts and then… But what if they smelled the trap? Were Uruks intelligent enough to understand what their enemies were up to? Of course, once the first fires were lit, their sense of smell would be seriously impaired by the heavy smoke, but what if they retreated before that? And what if the smoke became so thick that his own men would suffocate in it? So many 'ifs', and no alternative. They'd have to try their best and see.
"Marshal?" Fire reflected in the scout's dark eyes. Elfhelm gave him a short nod and clasped hands with the man who had proven himself on this mission in acknowledgement of his skill and loyalty. He and half of the men that were left would take the other tunnel that led into the mountains to defend. Would they see each other again?
"Eru is with those that help themselves, Thor. We will defeat them."
"Aye, Marshal." A very, very faint trace of a smile in the guarded face. "With you as our leader, I have no doubt of that." He returned the nod, and, woken from his reverie by the thunder of another door giving way to the advancing enemy, motioned for his men to follow him into the shadows…
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.