Miriel: Princess of Rohan - 4. THE BATTLE OF HELM'S DEEP

The waiting was interminable. The air inside the glittering caves of Helm's Deep was so thick you could slice it with a sword. Grief and fear hung over a great mass of huddled women and children like a choking black cloud. Only moments before, the King's guards had taken every able-bodied male from them, even old men and young boys, leaving wives, sisters, and daughters weeping disconsolately and clutching one another.

Miriel sat apart from the others in her dark corner. She wept for no one now, for her tears were spent. She was worn out from the long journey to Helm's Deep fraught with worry and terror of the ruthless Orcs. She wondered why she was still alive, and why it was that she, Miriel, and not her brothers or her parents, who had survived the attack. She was furious at being spared, especially since she was the only one of her family left.

She glanced at the Lady Eowyn, princess of Rohan, who was trying to comfort a small, wide-eyed child. Outwardly Eowyn seemed strong and in control, but Miriel knew that the princess didn't want to be here in the caves. Miriel had seen her arguing with King Theoden earlier, begging to be allowed to fight. But the King ordered her to remain with the women, and Eowyn meekly obeyed.

Suddenly Miriel caught her breath and clutched at the cold rock wall. She felt a great and terrible vibration that filled her quailing heart with dread. She knew without seeing that it was the iron-shod feet of a mighty host from Isengard. Their pounding shook the earth and caused the diamond-encrusted stalactites to tremble perilously on the roof of the cave. As the minutes went by, the approaching earthquake grew louder.

Abruptly it stopped. The air was deathly still except for the comfortless cries of a few small infants. Miriel looked upon the drawn faces of the women and the frightened wide-eyed children. She could see the mother whose child Miriel had carried on Kaspir's back now gently cradling her baby in the dim yellow torchlight.

Without warning there came a terrible crashing of iron punctuated by throaty roars. Instinct told Miriel that the Orcs were putting on some kind of fearsome display, purposely trying to pierce the courage of even the bravest hearts of men, pummeling the ground with spears and clashing sword on shield.

One trembling young woman threw herself into the arms of Princess Eowyn, sobbing hysterically.

"We are doomed!" the young woman wailed. "We're all going to die!"

"Hush, hush," commanded Eowyn. Miriel watched as the Princess comforted the young woman and tried to maintain a courageous calm.

All at once Miriel realized how hopeless this night truly was. The young woman was right. They had about three hundred soldiers defending them, mostly untrained old men and young boys. The Orcs were ten thousand strong. The battle would be bravely fought but swiftly concluded. Orcs would storm these caves and mercilessly slaughter everyone inside.

Miriel did not care if death found her on that dark night. She felt there was nothing left to live for, and she almost wanted to die just so she would be reunited with her beloved family. But as Miriel stared at the mother tenderly clutching her helpless child, and pictured the Orcs bursting in with their black swords drawn and closing in on the terrified woman and her baby, hatred suddenly blazed inside Miriel's chest.

"I did not carry that child this far through danger and shadow to watch him die in a corner," she muttered as a spark leapt into her gray eyes. The will to struggle against the enemy was rekindled, not for herself, but for the tiny infant, and for all the people who cowered powerlessly in those caves. That fire which burned in her heart gave her a little strength, and she pushed herself upright.

Then Miriel remembered the odds stacked against her. She thought of the throngs of hideous Orcs lying in wait for her outside. She knew that to venture beyond the caves was almost certain death. But if she remained here for the battle to end, the Orcs would surely come. She could see them leering cruelly and bending over her as she backed against a wall with nowhere to run.

"I would rather die fighting," she growled to the darkness, dispelling the evil vision with an effort. Her fate was decided, and Miriel stood up. Her only worldly possessions were in the brown cloth bag that her brother Elidor had given her when she had last seen him the night before. Miriel clutched the sack and slipped unnoticed into the shadows. She looked back at the Lady Eowyn's grim face before she disappeared around the corner.

When she was alone, Miriel ripped open the bag and lifted out the shirt of heavy chain mail which had once belonged to her brother, Elidor. Without hesitation she threw it on and settled it over her dark gray traveling dress. She tore the sides of her skirt to give herself greater mobility. She tied back her long dark hair with a strip of leather. Thus arrayed, she took a deep breath and steeled herself. Then she rushed out of the musty caves.

Once she was out in the open, Miriel paused to breathe the free air. Rain poured from dark clouds in great soaking torrents as though to dampen the spirits of Men. Miriel touched her ring and slid it closer to her hand; rain and nervous sweat were making her fingers clammy and she did not want to lose this ring. Even if it contained not one spot of magic or virtue, it came from her mother, and that made it priceless in Miriel's eyes.

Miriel spotted a sword lying forgotten on the stones and grabbed it, pausing to run a finger over the sharp steel edge. She was grateful now for the years she had spent learning the art of swordsmanship and everything her brothers had taught her about wielding a blade. She would put all those skills to good use on this doomed night.

Taking the sword, Miriel ran to the wall to see what was happening.

The sight nearly took her fragile courage away. Orcs from Isengard stretched on as far as the eye could see, their dark armor and evil helms emblazoned with the ghastly white hand of the fallen wizard Saruman. Torches burned among them, and above the enemy hung sheer black forests of glittering spears. The Orcs roared and slavered. Rain dripped from their hideous yellow fangs. Vast numbers of Orcs were already raising ladders to the wall, and hundreds more were firing arrows at the soldiers of Rohan.

Miriel wrenched herself from the horrible spectacle and looked then to the King. The defenders stood on the wall, tall and proud. Fell and determined were the faces of young and old. Miriel saw, to her great surprise, a large host of Elves among them. Miriel gasped and a brief smile passed over her lips at hope unlooked-for in this dark hour. Elves and Men had not fought side by side in this fashion for three thousand years since the time of the great kings, Elendil and Isildur, in the first war against Sauron. Yet here were the two races united once more under the same standard.

Miriel paused. Doubts plagued her mind. What could she do to help? She was only one among thousands; a mere maiden and no warrior. But Miriel was determined to try, no matter how small her contribution. She would not to stand by and do nothing while men fought and died to save Rohan.

At the least, she die with a sword in her hand.

Miriel ducked as an arrow whistled over her head. Instantly she roused herself and raced up the stone stairs toward the Elves.

"I've got nothing to lose," Miriel murmured aloud to herself as she ran. "At least I'll not meet my end in those stuffy caves, helpless and unarmed. I don't see what good I can do out here, and I can't imagine anyone making a song about my deeds in battle, but there's nothing else for it. I'll do my best."

As she ran, blood coursed through her body and Miriel was filled with a reckless courage. The fierce wind blasted her face and tore at her dress. Rain pounded in her eyes. But Miriel did not care. She shook her head to clear her vision and sent drops of water flying away like bits of broken glass. Miriel shouted into the night and leapt up the stairs. She was young and strong and alive. She could make a difference!

An arrow zinged at her chest and Miriel gave a short cry, but it bounced back, thwarted by the chain mail and leaving only a short rip to show that it had been there. Miriel paid no more heed to the dart that dropped harmlessly to the ground, but her mind was working. It told her that she should have felt more impact than she had. Miriel clutched at her ring while her legs churned and carried her along the top of the fortress. She would need all the help she could get...

Suddenly a roaring Orc loomed ahead of Miriel, his weapon raised to strike her down as she came. A flash of lightning burned his black armor a sharp, ghostly white against the stormy skies.

Fear flickered in Miriel's eyes, but anger blazed through her heart and won out.

"Alastar!" Miriel cried as she charged.

Her sword clashed against the Orc's heavy iron and deflected the blow. Miriel was nearly thrown to the ground from the force of the impact, but she recovered immediately and twisted away.

The Orc was gigantic, more than twice her match in mass and muscle. But Miriel was swift and agile, and desperation lent her uncommon strength. Clumsiness was the Orc's only weakness, and Miriel took full advantage of it. Twice her sword clashed with the Orc's before a third quick thrust took him at last. Miriel's enemy fell sputtering at her feet.

Miriel dashed up the last steps. Fear quickened her heartbeat and heightened all her senses. Colors brightened and smells were stronger. Miriel found she could see everything clearly, even in the darkness. Miriel became immune to weariness and pain as adrenaline coursed through her veins. Wind and rain were forgotten. Her mind sharpened to an almost supernatural level, and Miriel no longer had to think about what she was doing but relied rather on instinct.

Miriel smote another Orc that stood in her way. She reached the top of the wall and dashed along it, glancing down as she ran. More ladders were raised, laden heavily with invaders.

One ladder was coming straight toward her. A few soldiers of Rohan ran to meet it, but they would not make it in time. In a flash Miriel realized that it was up to her to keep this part of the wall clear. She gripped her sword with clammy hands and stood fast, breathless but determined.

The ladder clanged against the wall. With an unearthly cry Miriel threw her sword against the Orc's and shoved it harmlessly aside. She recoiled swiftly and stabbed at his chest. With a throaty yell he fell limply from the top rung, taking several of the enemy with him as he plunged into a black sea of Orcs.

And then the unthinkable happened. Miriel's ring slipped off.

She gasped and went after the tiny silver hoop as it went bouncing merrily across the wall, but just as she pounced on it, the ring lodged into a crack in the stones and refused to budge.

Miriel was frantic. She could hear more Orcs climbing the ladder, uttering strings of harsh words in the Dark Tongue that Miriel was glad she could not understand, and Miriel worked feverishly at the ring stuck in the stones. She was running out of time. Rain made her grip impossible, and she tugged and gasped, but the ring was tightly embedded in the wall and would not move. The Orcs were getting closer. Miriel's fingers slipped off the round surface, and she slapped the stones in frustration and tried all the harder. The Uruk-hai were almost at the top of the wall. Miriel gritted her teeth and bit her lip and pulled...

Just as the first Orc topped the wall, Miriel gave one last desperate tug and the ring miraculously popped loose. She threw it on her finger and grabbed her sword in time for a last-second parry that only just saved her from a premature decapitation. Miriel traded blows with the Orc, and with a sudden lunge of Miriel's sword the Orc stopped mid-growl and fell, howling, to the ground below, taking a few of his companions with him.

More Orcs climbed upward, snarling in fury at being thus delayed. Miriel knocked another Orc from the ladder before the soldiers arrived. Seeming not to heed her presence the guards rushed in and took over, and Miriel was pushed aside. Orcs came in pairs, but no sooner did they reach the wall than they met their doom.

Miriel blinked. She was no longer needed here. Grasping her sword and clenching her fist to minimize the risk of losing the ring again, she ran on.

Ahead Miriel saw that the Elves had a terrible fight on their hands. Orcs swarmed up the ladders and poured over the wall. Miriel dashed toward them, leveling an enemy that stood in her path, and then all at once she reached the thick of the battle. Without hesitation Miriel plunged in.

Fighting swirled around her. The crash of metal and steel rang in her ears. Desperately her sword flashed as she laid Orcs at her feet. Her cries mingled with those of the Elves and were lost in the hoarse grunts of the Orcs. Above the tumult Miriel heard a deep voice.

"Legolas!" someone called from another part of the wall. Miriel dimly realized that the voice belonged to a Dwarf, the visitor named Gimli. "Two already!"

Miriel leaped aside to avoid an Orc's stroke and then slew him.

"I'm on seventeen!" Miriel heard another shout back. She drew herself up and slammed her sword across another Orc, listening to this odd conversation with only half her mind.

"Argh!" exclaimed the Dwarf fiercely. "I'll have no pointy-ear outscoring me!"

If the danger had been less, Miriel would have laughed aloud. But this strange manner of jesting gave her courage. She rose up and clashed with yet another Orc, trading blows until Miriel threw the sword from his grasp and finished him.

"Nineteen!" shouted the Elf Legolas.

Miriel ran to the wall and found on Orc clawing his way up a ladder. She threw him down and killed the one behind him. Miriel grabbed at a passing Elf and caught his tunic.

"Help me!" she hollered.

Together with the Elf, Miriel pushed on the ladder with all her might until it fell away from the wall and crashed to the earth, killing many of the Orcs below as well as the ones clinging to the ladder.

Breathless and exhausted, Miriel stumbled backwards and tripped over a fallen Orc. Clutching at her sword in terror she tried to scramble to her feet, but she was too weak.

Miriel glanced about wildly, expecting doom to fall upon her without warning, but she found the wall miraculously clear of Orcs for the moment. Looking up, she saw the short, sturdy form of the Dwarf planted firmly on the wall and silhouetted against the blazing battle. He was standing between two overloaded ladders, whirling his axe and single-handedly taking down each Orc as they reached the top.

"Eighteen! Nineteen! Twenty! Twen-tee-one-uh!" Gimli's strong voice rang out over Helm's Deep as he wielded his great axe. "Twen-tee-two! Twen-tee-threeeee!"

"Bless you, Gimli," Miriel murmured, grimacing in amusement. She rested quietly for an instant until she felt her strength returning. Her ring had slipped almost over her knuckle, but she pushed it back into place. She struggled to her feet as several more ladders landed against the wall. Orcs poured over the top, and the Elves soon had more than they could handle. Miriel dashed in and lent her sword to the cause.

Suddenly a great warrior appeared, battling two Orcs at once, and then giving orders to the Elven archers. Elves and Men alike found new courage in his presence. Miriel had only time to glance at him and recalled the tales from the gossiping refugees. Aragorn son of Arathorn he was called, a visitor to Rohan and a companion of Gimli's. Beyond that Miriel remembered nothing.

The onslaught of the Orcs grew fierce, and Miriel lost track of both Aragorn and Gimli. Her magic ring succombed to the rain and sweat and slipped off again and was lost under the black feet of the Orcs, and Miriel could not retrieve it. She was forced to fight alone. Pain seared through her body as one of her enemies slashed wildly and caught her in the arm. Miriel screamed even as she slew the Orc.

The battle was momentarily under control again, and Miriel looked down at her forearm and found a deep gash. Blood poured from it and stained her torn dress. A dizzy spell took her and she clutched at the wall to steady herself.

At that instant Miriel became aware of arrows singing away with great speed beside her head. She turned and found herself standing next to a tall, fair Elven archer. His hands moved quicker than sight and his arrows did not fail to find their mark. His long blonde hair blew in the wind, his intense eyes burned into the ranks of the enemy, and his mouth pursed grimly as he sought his next target. Miriel stared at him, but the Elf took no notice and continued firing into the black masses below.

Miriel saw that his arrow stock was running low. He was taking out a large number of Orcs with his lightning speed and deadly precision, far more than any single warrior could have done with the sword. Miriel decided she would be the most useful to the defense if she helped the Elf continue firing without a letup, unhindered by lack of arrows.

But his supply would not last indefinitely.

Immediately Miriel dropped down and groped about on the cold wet stone until she found a score of good arrows. Her ring was among them, twinkling amid the mud puddle where it had been kicked aside by the careless Orcs, and Miriel jammed the erring silver circlet back onto her finger with a muttered "And stay there" before running back with the arrows and cramming them into the Elf's quiver.

Instantly the blonde Elf whipped around, and Miriel found herself looking into a pair of startling, fierce blue eyes and at the shiny silver tip of an arrow aimed right at her heart. Miriel gasped. She stumbled backwards and fell with a cry, but her gaze ever held that of the Elf's, even as he, stunned at meeting her thus, lost his intense angry expression and slowly lowered his bow.

Time stilled and the noise of the battle seemed to fade away as the Elf reached out and helped Miriel to her feet. The boiling clouds overhead parted and for an instant starlight shone down on them. Then came the strangest sound of all in this dark hour: The sound of Elves singing. Helm's Deep vanished and was replaced by a beautiful ageless forest filled with golden trees. Miriel's pain was gone, and her ragged dress was replaced with a shimmering white gown.

At once Miriel thought she must be hallucinating. The pain and fear and sorrow together with lack of food, drink and sleep must have taken its toll on her overwrought mind. But she did not object; this lovely oasis was far and beyond preferable to the hopeless bloody war and death she had left behind.

Miriel could see Elves in the twilight walking softly through the trees, and their sweet songs drifted around her like a soft wind, stealing away her anxiety. Although Miriel couldn't understand the fair Elven speech, the words of their lays pierced her heart, and she felt as if she almost knew what they were saying.

The blonde Elf stood holding her hand, arrayed as an Elven prince. Jewels shimmered on his brow. The glade where they were standing was lit by the bright light of a single star. The Elven prince looked upon her and spoke to her softly in Elven tongue.

"A, elo," he whispered.

"I... it- it's nice to meet you too," replied Miriel, just as awestruck as the Elf appeared to be. She had never seen anyone as fair as he, and Miriel was captivated by his Elvish beauty.

But it was his brilliant blue eyes that captured Miriel. Something about his warm, piercing gaze made her heart skip a beat. It was as if they had met somewhere before, or perhaps had known each other forever, and they knew everything about each other without any words being spoken. Miriel could not look away.

"Who are you?" breathed the Elf, seeming as captivated as she.

Miriel moved to say something, but she was interrupted.

Suddenly Miriel was aware of shouting as if from afar. She craned to look over her shoulder and beheld Aragorn emerging from a cloud of blue smoke, running like fire toward them. His sword blazed in his hand, and he was hollering in Elven tongue.

"Legolas! Legolas!" Aragorn yelled, gesturing wildly as he came on. "Na fennas!"

Immediately Miriel was back in Helm's Deep. Her dress was torn and bloody, and Legolas was a warrior once more. The mysterious woods had disappeared like a thin curtain of silken mist in the afternoon sun as the clouds closed over the brilliant star; the sweet singing became the clash of arms and the throaty grunts of warriors. Miriel shook her head swiftly to clear it; she was sure she had become disoriented and imagined it.

Legolas blinked, then turned briefly back to Miriel. Fury filled his bright sapphire eyes and he dashed back to his place on the wall, leaving Miriel alone where she stood, dripping wet and bloody. Aragorn blew past her without seeing her, screaming at Legolas.

"Togo hon dad, Legolas!" Aragorn cried. Instantly the Elf fitted a shaft to his bowstring and fired below. The entire focus of the defenders had shifted to the causeway, and Miriel went to the wall and looked down. Orcs had crawled up to a small culvert, and now a single Orc ran toward the wall holding aloft a fiercely blazing torch. Miriel's heart caught in her throat. The Orc moved swiftly with such purpose and absolute certainty that something was definitely wrong. Legolas's first arrow was embedded in the thick black hide of his shoulder, but still he came on as if he could not feel pain.

Fear shot through Miriel as she watched the drama play out below her.

"Dago hon! Dago hon!" screamed Aragorn. Legolas took careful aim and buried a second arrow in the torchbearer's neck. The Orc shuddered as if stung, and for a moment it looked as if he would fall.

But with a last desperate plunge the Orc threw himself, and the torch, into the culvert. For a single breathless instant the battle stopped and the world grew dreadfully still.

Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion right beneath Miriel's feet that ripped the ground out from underneath her. She flew screaming through the air with an assortment of Elves and Men. She landed with terrible force facedown on cold hard stone. The ring, released from Miriel's deathgrip, dropped from her finger. Then everything went dark.

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