4. The Battle of the Hornburg
I remember little of the slow walk to the Hornburg. I should have run, but I was spent; it was all I could do to keep one foot moving after the other. The long, steep ramp up to the Gate nearly undid me.
Once within I begged the sentries for a moment's rest before making the descent to the caves, and sank down on a nearby mounting block. I may even have dozed for a moment, I know not – but the loud hail of "The Lord of the Mark rides to Helm's Deep!" startled me as much it did the Riders manning the Gate. I sprang aside and watched as a long line of weary horses, led by Riders on foot, shouldered their way past.
In the mass of sweaty horseflesh hemming me in, I glimpsed a flash of a familiar steel blue flank. "Father!" I cried.
"Elfled! How came you here?" He dropped Moth's reins, and I saw his face darken as he took in my scratched face and ragged clothes. "Are you hurt?"
I stammered out the tale of the raid on Fossdale and my journey here over the mountain paths.
"And Elric? Leofwyn?"
I am sure my face told him the answer to that question before I spoke. "They are dead. I do not know if Hereward still lives, I could not find him. But why are you here? How came the King to ride forth? Has Gríma persuaded him to seek death in battle?"
My father smiled. "No, daughter, Théoden is himself again. The bare bones of the tale are that Gandalf Greyhame returned unlooked for, with such companions as you would think me moonstruck if I spoke the truth of them. The King listened to his counsel, and Gríma was cast out and told to crawl back to his master.
"Then the King gathered an éored of loyal men, Halred and I among them, and rode here with all speed. We know that Saruman must strike at Helm's Deep next, now that he has taken the Fords and slain Théodred."
"Théodred?" I repeated stupidly. "Killed? When?"
"Six days ago." His face softened. "Elfled, my dear, I am sorry. I thought that the Westfold would have had tidings of it by now."
Théodred was dead – he who had stopped the other children from calling Halred and me "mud-eyes," and worse, when first we came to Edoras. Théodred, my first calf-love, who had treated me always with grave courtesy, even when I could hardly stutter a word in his presence. The King's heir, and one of the Mark's finest warriors.
It was then I saw that this was no longer a question of Dunlending raids, but war – and a war that would cost us dearly. Even victory now would taste bitter indeed, with so many Riders slain; and how much more likely it was that Rohan would fall so lastingly none would even remain to sing sad songs of our heroic defeat.
* * *
I had heard many times of the beauty of the Glittering Caves, but I saw no enchantment in the place that night. The air was close, and it was dark – there were few torches, and fires could not be lit since the smoke would not vent properly. I went from cave to cave, stepping over fretful children, searching for Hereward or any of the missing folk from Fossdale. None were there.
In the end I huddled in an unclaimed corner of one of the outer caves, gratefully blessing that old Rider at the Dike for the horseblanket he had scrounged up. Resting my head on my knees, I tried to sleep, but closing my eyes brought no peace.
I do not believe any of the refugees slept that night, except perhaps some of the youngest children. It was not that it was loud – indeed, the noise of the battle was only a faint roar, like the sound of a distant river in flood – but that very quiet made one strain to catch every slight change or rise in pitch.
About two hours past the middle of the night, a louder rumble and crash brought us all to our feet. An instant later, the brazen shrieks of orcs began and rose and rose into a howling crescendo. It was a terrible sound, thought-killing, panic-bringing; I wanted to clamp my hands over my ears and flee into the darkest, narrowest crevice I could find.
Then the roaring burst into the cavern like water over a broken dam. I heard shouts, screams, the clash and ring of blades. But nothing of the fighting was visible from where I was, and the stampede of terrified Deeping-folk thrusting past me to the inner caverns made it even harder to see what was happening. I heard a voice roar "To me! To me, Eorlingas!" and realized with a jolt that it was Éomer's.
Then the shieldwall was driven back among the refugees, and all was indescribable chaos. The noise redoubled, echoing off the cave roof, until the shrieking of the Orcs seemed to pierce my skull. The warriors of the Mark fought mostly in silence, wasting no breath on shouts now. The whole scene was lit only by the guttering flames of a few pine-pitch torches fixed to the walls.
I was caught in an eddy of screaming women, trapped in a shallow alcove of the main cavern. Three times the line of battle swept back and forth in front of us, so close that I could smell the foul, musky Orc-scent and see the torchlight reflected in their red eyes. I clung to the rock with both hands to stay upright against the pressure of so many bodies shoving to and fro.
The fourth time the Riders pushed back, the Orcs broke and fled at last. Éomer's white horsetail plume flicked me on the cheek as he turned his head in passing to shout "Well done, Master Gimli!" I blinked at the sight of a child among the warriors. But no, the chin was heavily bearded, and the face was not that of a child, even if the height was.
The Riders halted and regrouped at the mouth of the caves, and I heard the low mutter of deep men's voices as they laid their plans. Slowly and timidly, women and children crept out of the deeper caverns again like mice. The wails of children who had been terrified into silence during the skirmish now filled the caves. I crawled into my rocky corner and curled up beneath my blanket again.
When I woke, the grey light of dawn was just beginning to show at the rough arch of the cave's mouth, and the Riders were preparing for a sortie. Gamling bade all of the refugees to move back into the farther caverns, where the livestock were being kept, and not to come forth until a messenger reached us.
Most of the women and children about me had been on their feet for a day or two by now, with less sleep even than I. They moved towards the deeper caverns like sleepwalkers, their faces dull with fatigue. Here and there, though, I saw fear on the features of one more awake who realized, as I did, what this meant. The Riders expected to make a last stand.
There were no weapons in the inner caverns, nothing but a few wainloads of farm tools. If the Orcs broke through, there was no escape – we would be hunted down through the narrow passages like rats.
I took a deep breath, striving to stay calm, and thought despairingly of my father and brother. I did not want to die; but more than that, I did not want to die alone. If only I could stand with them!
Stop that! I told myself sharply. You are a woman of the Mark, not a green girl. At least I had been able to bid Halred and Father a proper farewell; I had been a Rider's daughter long enough to know what an uncommon blessing that was.
Far sooner than I expected, the sound of trampling feet echoed in the cave mouth. I steeled myself for the harsh cries of Orcs, but instead we heard shouts from the Riders returning, accompanied by a King's messenger come to tell us the great news – that against all chance, the Deep had been saved by an army of eldritch trees. Having cried his tidings loudly for all to hear, the messenger stood in conference with Gamling for a moment, and then the old Rider turned to point at me.
My mouth suddenly filled with sickly-tasting bile as I watched the messenger approach. I swallowed hastily and arranged my features into the calm mask Mother had worn on so many similar occasions. Father or Halred must be gravely wounded indeed, if someone had come so soon after the battle to seek me out.
"Elfled, Háma's daughter?" I nodded.
"Théoden King sent me to seek you out. Your father…" he hesitated for an instant, then plunged on. "Your father is dead."
"How did he fall?" My own voice sounded strange and far-away to my ears.
"I know not, though I hear that it was defending the King before the Hornburg. If you come with me, I shall take you to the King, who can tell you more."
"Take me to my father's body first." I forced the next question past resisting lips. "And my brother – Halred he is called? He would have been with my father."
"Of him I have no news."
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.