4. Battle and Conflict
As the travelers came to the head of the stairs that led to the terrace of Meduseld, a guard spoke a welcome in the fashion of Rohan. He was goldenhaired, and mail-clad, and girt with longsword. Then he said, "I am Háma, the door warden. You may not come before the Lord of the Mark armed; it is his will that you lay weapons aside here." Aragorn stiffened slightly.
Legolas saw the tension on the Man's face, and stepped forward first, unbuckling his baldric. He gave to the door warden his bow and quiver, saying, "keep these well, for they are gifts of the Lady of the Wood." He removed also his long white knife, and placed this beside the others. Aragorn stood, still hesitating and uneasy. Legolas thought that after the torment the man had endured, it must be a fearful thing to put aside his blade and go without weapons among armed men.
Gandalf looked at Aragorn from under his bushy eyebrows, his gaze understanding but firm. "Our errand is pressing and time is short, we must not delay. We are all enemies of the one enemy, and so we should be friends among ourselves! But a king will have his way in his own hall. So although it is folly to concern yourself with this, I give you Glamdring, made by the elves long ago." And Gandalf laid the ancient sword down beside the bow and quiver of the Golden Wood. He looked expectantly at Aragorn.
But Gimli came forward next and gave his axe into the door warden's hand, saying, "you may keep my axe as well, but let it be ready when next there are orc-necks to hew." Hama smiled, and set the axe leaning against the wall. At last Aragorn's hands went to his belt buckle and loosened it, and he took his sword and laid it beside Gimli's axe. Loth he seemed to let it rest there, but finally he straightened and turned toward the great doors.
Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli stood to the side as Gandalf spoke with Théoden. A chamber was prepared for the weary travelers, for the King had summoned all who could ride and bear weapons in Edoras, and they would not assemble until the morrow. Éowyn, sister-daughter to Théoden, in courtesy brought them drink and spoke with them of their travels. At last she bade them be at ease, and showed them a chamber in which to rest as Theoden and Gandalf conferred.
Gimli slept, but Aragorn was restless. Legolas woke to see the Man standing by the window, and his face was haunted. "How is it with you now, Aragorn?"
"I do not know," he sighed. " I am unhurt, the wounds of my body have healed."
"But not all wounds?" Legolas asked. "I have seen you shed tears for Boromir. Have you no tears for yourself?"
"I cannot shed them," Aragorn said. "And yet, I cannot rest easy. My mind is troubled when I chance to think of what has passed, and I find myself wondering, is this what women or nessi feel when they lie with us?"
"Nay, you cannot believe that. You know that some among the neri, especially when young, lie together, and it is not like that for them either. It is the joy in each other that makes it a different thing, a blessing of the gods rather than a foul deed."
"Have you known such a blessing, Legolas?"
"I have known such, many long years ago. The friend I spoke of, who was captured by the orcs, he was a source of great joy to me."
Aragorn turned his head away. "I knew such joy once. Now, under a lover's caress, I fear my mind would taunt me with the memory of a harsher hand. I would not go to my lady with any less than the joy she deserves. How can I bear to have her see me flinch from her touch?"
Legolas looked sadly upon his friend. "I hope healing comes to you before journey's end. Is there nothing that comforts you?"
Aragorn regarded him steadily. "Your friendship comforts me."
The sun had barely risen when the horsemen began gathering before the gate. This day the éored would ride out, and the King himself would ride with his men. Éowyn, like to Éomer her brother, was fair and noble, but she stood as if carved of steel. No light was in her face as she gazed out on the éoreds assembling, and there was naked longing in her eyes. But women did not join the warriors on the field, and brave shieldmaiden as she was, she grieved to be left behind.
Legolas saw how Éowyn watched Aragorn, and how her hand trembled after Aragorn took the cup of farewell from her fingers. And passing the stairs and leaving the gate, the companions waited for the King and his men to bring their mounts up, her eyes still upon them. Legolas followed Aragorn's eyes back toward the hall of Edoras, and the figure of Éowyn as she stood, still and straight after bidding them farewell. The elf glanced back at the face of his friend, but said nothing.
Aragorn shook his head. "Nay, do not fear, I well know that is no answer for me. I would only feel myself further shamed by such a course," he said soberly. Then he laughed, "I do not need to learn about lust; any Man who has attained eighteen years of age has learned that lesson well enough. I would not be the cause of another's pain to salve my own. And yet Legolas," he said, "it is my deeds, my freedom to ride to battle, my command of men, that she truly craves for herself; she desires these far more than my affections. I merely seem admirable to her, as does a great captain to a young soldier." So saying, Aragorn turned Hasufel to where the mass of Riders waited, and Legolas followed, turning away from the piercing gaze of the Lady of Rohan.
Then the King rode up with Éomer, and the horns were blown as the banners with the white horse on green rippled above the host. The spear points glittered as they set off, and Éomer rode with Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli in the van. Gandalf rode on Shadowfax before them all, and his robes gleamed as if they were the finest mail; and all eyes looked to the White Rider and his companions with hope as the host rode to Helm's Deep.
The battle would be uneven, and cruel. The orc-host filled the coomb and spilled into the vale, a vast field of torches and seething motion under a darkening sky, heavy with the threat of storm. Arrows whistled over the parapet, and ladders were readied at the base of the Deeping Wall. Éomer had ordered his troops so that the men of Westfold were behind, and the Riders were on the wall. Many of the Riders felt despair in their hearts at the sight of so great a host, but their hands were upon their swords, and their bows were bent, waiting. The great storm broke over the Deep, lightening slashing through the sky to reveal the massed hordes beneath the walls, thunder punctuating the din of battle. And the Rohirrim knew that no quarter could be asked, or given. One did not negotiate with orcs.
Ladders were swung up as the invaders scaled the walls, and the Men of Rohan were soon engaged at close quarters on the wall. Where the fighting was heaviest, there sooner or later one or more of the three companions would make their way to join the battle. And always out in front, there Aragorn's sword flickered, rallying the defenders. The cry of "Elendil!" heartened the weary men of Rohan again and again as the onslaught of orcs seemed tireless and unending. When the battle ebbed for a moment from where he stood, Legolas spared a glance at Aragorn. Legolas had feared that the orcs would awaken only rage and fury in Aragorn, and that all thought would flee; but it was not so. The Man fought as he ever had, focused, controlled, and deadly. He had still the stern aspect of command; the dignity of ancient kings that called others to his service, whether or not they were so bound. Éomer, as so many others on the walls that night, felt that call.
As another wave of assailants swarmed up the ladders, an overwhelming roar split the air, and a blast shook the battlements. The Deeping Wall had been breached! The enemy poured through, orcs and wild men of Dunlending. Step by step the defenders were pushed back, those on the south side retreating to the caves, those on the north to the Rock, the already too small force split in half. Many fell or took great hurt covering the retreat. On the north side there was only a single stairway to escape the enemy and gain the Hornburg. Aragorn stood at the bottom of the steps, sword in hand, guarding the way for the retreating men of Rohan.
Legolas knelt on the top step, bow taut, ready to shoot with his last arrow. "Aragorn!" he called. "There are none of ours left alive beyond the wall. Come up!"
Aragorn retreated up the stairs, giving ground slowly, bright sword flashing in the torchlight as he hewed his assailants. Halfway up the stairs he thrust his blade through a large orc and then pushed him down upon the others behind with his foot. He turned and ran up the stairs, but stumbled in his weariness on the wet, slick rock. Orcs pushed past their dead comrade, yelling, ready to fall upon the man. He regained his feet as the orc reaching toward him, blade in hand, fell with an arrow in his throat, and the next behind him was stopped by a thrown knife. Aragorn reached the rear gate, which slammed shut behind him.
He looked out over the Deep, and the writhing mass of Saruman's army that poured still through the breach in the wall. "Things go ill, my friend," he said as he turned to Legolas.
"Ill enough, but not yet hopeless while we have you with us."
He looked up at the elf, standing on the walls of the outer court. "Ever you have been a friend indeed, and given me hope in dark times. But now we must turn our thought to defense of the Hornburg. Come, I must speak to Théoden. Would that dawn were here!"
Nessi : female elf
Neri: male elf