His breath was hot and ragged in his lungs as Merry sliced his sword hard down upon the iron helm of an orc that came scrambling toward Windfola’s left side. The blade struck his target with a harsh crack that stung his fingers, but the stroke was true, for the orc uttered a short harsh bark and fell away from him, limp, the creature’s helmet dented inward.
Merry lifted his head, noise ringing in his ears as he glanced about himself, at the noise and chaos of battle. His heart was hammering swiftly in his throat as he glanced over the sea of mottled orcs that swarmed about the legs of the horses of the Rohirrim. He could feel Éowyn behind him, slicing and stabbing at the orcs that lunged at them from their right side.
He dropped his eyes quickly again, to stab the point of his sword home into another orc that came lunging and grunting toward him, a wicked curved blade raised to bring it down upon Windfola’s neck.
He licked his dry lips swiftly, glancing up again as he noted the ranks of their enemies thinning, fleeing, even, back toward the distant river, and the broken fragments of a city that lay sprawled across it.
Merry allowed himself a small chuckle as his heart began to warm with courage.
“Drive them to the river!” he heard the voice of Éomer, Éowyn’s brother, crying somewhere to his right.
“Make safe the city!” the king’s voice called out as well, strong and deep. And with a cry, Éowyn wheeled the head of her mount about, and the thundering hooves of horses thrummed in his ears as the warriors of Rohan started after the fleeing orcs.
A laugh was beginning upon Merry’s lips, his hopes high as the bent mottled creatures fled like squealing rats before him toward the river, into the dust and haze that had been stirred up by the fighting.
But something trembled through the ground beneath Windfola’s scampering hooves which brought them and the horses about them to a shuddering halt.
Gasping upon the choking dust, Merry strained to see beyond the running orcs. What was it that was causing the horses to grow so skittish, that sent a wave of uneasiness worming through his frame?
And then the cries of the Rohirrim faded, and he could hear it. A sound which sent chills crackling along his limbs as it had when he had heard the first distant drumbeat in Moria.
A distant rolling cadence of a drum along with the echoing chant of men in a strange language he had never heard before, trembled through the dust choked air about him. And as the haze settled slowly, Merry’s brows knit together in alarm, his heart all but stopping in his chest at what he saw.
Huge creatures, like great moving hills, were striding nearer across the plain. Their great legs were like trees, as round, nearly as the great trunks of the Mallyrn in the Golden Wood. Their snouts were long, like huge writhing snakes, while vast pointed teeth, like curving fangs, protruded from the sides of their cavernous mouths. The two longest of these huge teeth curved out nearly as long as their long snouts, and here and there upon these curving teeth of one or another of the creatures, were bound wretched looking spikes, that could skewer a horse through. Between these vast teeth of the nearest one to Merry, had been bound a great scything wire that had been drawn tightly, and woven through with sharp spikes, for the purpose, it looked, of slicing the legs from beneath horses and Men. Upon their backs had been strapped great platforms where dozens of men stood, bows in their hands, their faces shrouded with great wrappings of dark cloth. Upon the beasts’ necks stood other men, guiding the animals with great cords that had been pierce through their ears, vast sheets of grey, flapping sails.
“Oliphaunts,” he managed to mutter though his throat was hot and dry.
“What?” Éowyn gasped, her left arm tightening across his shoulders.
“The old rhyme was true,” he muttered numbly. “I never gave much thought to it-,”
“Reform the line!” Théoden’s voice, undaunted in its strength, cried out, carrying swiftly over the hosts of stuttering horses. “Reform the line!”
And her uncle’s fearlessness seemed to give Éowyn strength as she stiffened behind Merry, and urged Windfola to the fore of the tightening line of mounted warriors.
“Sound the charge!” Théoden cried. “Take them head on.”
A horn sounded out, echoed all along the line.
“Charge!” Théoden shouted, and Merry’s heart leaped within him as he heard himself crying out, fear shoved far back in a forgotten corner of his mind as Éowyn with a determined cry, kicked her heels into Windfola’s sides. With a sharp whinny, the horses of the Rohirrim charged forward toward the surging line of oliphaunts.
His heart was a hammer in his chest as the line of the Rohirrim drew near to the legs of the beasts. The oliphaunt nearest them lowered its head as the puny riders drew near, and began to swing its great head. Merry gasped, and cried out as a horse and its rider, not two paces before them, simply vanished from the ground as the horse emitted a wild squeal of pain. Shooting his eyes heavenward as Windfola screamed and veered to the side, avoiding the thunderous stomping of the beast’s legs, Merry could see the impaled body of the horse upon the sharpened spikes bound to the ends of the oliphaunt’s massive, protruding tooth. The rider had already been flung away, tumbling through the air like a lifeless doll. The oliphaunt shook its head, flinging the carcass of the horse away. And then the view was gone as Éowyn dug her heels into Windfola’s side, urging her mount into the open space between the raging beast and its nearest companion.
Turning his head, she brought Windfola about, and Merry found himself facing the backs of the thundering beasts as they mowed their way through the Rohirrim who were coming behind.
Éowyn’s breath was sharp and fast, and Merry felt her tense as an oliphaunt’s heavy foot came down upon a rider, crushing both him and his horse into the earth.
“Come on!” she cried, her voice fierce and wild as she brought Windfola into a hard gallop as they surged back toward the raging beasts.
The oliphaunts were no longer in so tight a line as when they had made their first charge, the beasts turning now, one way and the other as they stomped about on the battlefield, a frothing mass of horses and men, and orcs now as well, who had turned about, and were coming back into the fighting with wild squeals of glee, seeking out the men who had been unhorsed, and who fought alone.
Éowyn and Merry made good use of their swords as Windfola cantered about the confusion, cutting down orcs here and there, though of a sudden, Éowyn brought Windfola to a sudden stop, a muffled cry erupting from her throat.
“Éomer!” Éowyn voice cried out from behind Merry, laced with despair. And as Merry turned to look, he could see the source of her fear.
The beast that had the cutting wire bound between its massive curving teeth, was scything through a group of horsemen, mowing them down as they fled from before it. Yet Éomer, his white plumed helmet easy to see, had drawn his mount to a halt, and sat high upon his horse’s back, his eyes raised, unmoved as the beast rumbled nearer.
“Éomer!!” she screamed despairing as the beast drew ever nearer though Merry knew her brother could not hear her in the mélee. But as it came on, its wicked scything wire scraping across the ground closer and closer to Éomer, the king’s nephew raised his spear and flung it with all the mighty strength of his arm, not toward the head of the beast, but above it, just between its flapping ears.
Merry, breathless, turned to watch its flight, to see the spear strike true in the chest of the man who stood upon its neck. The man let out a screech and fell limp from his perch, his weight, wrapped in the cords with which he had guided the beast yanking taut upon the oliphaunt’s left ear.
Merry caught a wild gasp in his throat as the beast, its head wrenched to the side, veered sharply to its left, swerving away from Éomer, its head twisted fiercely, bawling as it went until with a crash, it collided with one of its fellows, the scything wire strapped between its monstrous teeth knocking the other oliphaunt’s legs from beneath it. Down they both went, amid cries and curses from the Easterlings within the fortresses mounted upon their backs as they tipped and fell, spilling men out upon the ground as the oliphaunts crashed to the ground, one on top of the other.
Éowyn released a hoarse cheer at this, and spun Windfola’s head away from the scene, spurring her mount into a hard run across the trampled grass. The battlefield was a chaotic fracas of dust and screams, roaring oliphaunts, and everywhere, the sight of death.
Before them, an orc and a young rider who stood alone and unhorsed, were fighting furiously. The rider was too young even to have the first growth of manhood upon his youthful face. The orc, grasping an arm around the young man’s neck, twisted him about with a shriek, and flung him to the ground, lifting his blade to bring it down into the young soldier’s body.
“Take the reins!” Éowyn cried out to Merry, and he obeyed, snatching the leather strappings in his hands, his eyes wide as they drew nearer to the orc and its helpless prey.
“Pull left!” she shouted, and he did as she bid. And as they passed behind the seething orc, its curved blade raised to the sky, Éowyn reached out, and snatched the creature’s blade right from its hands.
His eyes agape, Merry glanced back for a brief moment to see the young horseman catch his own fallen blade up, taking advantage of the orc’s momentary surprise to stab his own blade home as the orc stiffened and fell.
“Left!” Éowyn ordered again, and Merry jerked his eyes forward, doing as she bid, as steel rang against steel across the battlefield, amid the trumpeting bellows of the oliphaunts, and the rumble of their stomping legs all about them.
A fearful squeak burst past Merry’s lips as he saw the flailing head of an oliphaunt draw near, but then, miraculously, they were past its wickedly curving teeth, and suddenly they were between its forelegs.
With a cry, Éowyn swung the orc’s stolen blade into the beast’s leg into the bent joint, and a moment later, swung her own sword into the beast’s other leg. Above them, the creature bawled its fury as they lunged beneath its grey belly and as they passed between its back legs, she released a shout of fury as she swung both blades deep into the oliphaunt’s knees before they passed once again into the sunlight.
Wailing, the creature toppled, and collapsed as the platform upon its back slid and fell to the ground, Easterlings tumbling out with wild cries.
“Aim for their heads!” a familiar voice caused Éowyn’s head to swivel toward it, and Merry recognized Éomer’s shout. Not far away, the king’s nephew as well as Gamling and many other horsemen, had encircled an oliphaunt, and were firing their arrows toward its mouth and eyes.
Bellowing in protest, the beast raised itself up upon its hind legs as if to ward off the ceaseless darts.
“Bring it down!” the king’s voice cried out from nearby. “Bring it down!”
A javelin, thrust into the ground nearby, was snatched up into Éowyn’s hands as she urged Windfola nearer toward the roaring beast. And with a thrust of her arm, flung the sharpened lance into the back of the beast’s leg.
Down it fell heavily. But twisted as it came, and Merry gasped as its shadow fell over them, collapsing now, down onto the very spot where Windfola stood.
The horse screamed, and in his terror, he tumbled to the side. Merry cried out as he felt himself falling, but forcing his wits to remain with him, he managed to leap free of the falling horse, and landed roughly upon the grass.
Éowyn! Where was Éowyn? he wondered desperately as he rolled, the world a blur about him. But then a wild crash boomed about him, and a heavy crushing weight tumbled down upon him, pinning him down, and snuffing out the muted light of day.
Was he crushed beneath the oliphaunt? Was he dead? Oh, no, he couldn’t be dead. He wouldn’t be so uncomfortable if he was. He could smell the acrid scent of cured leather upon him. A piece of one of the platforms of the Easterlings, he realized, had fallen on top of him. And with a determined shove, he pushed the crumpled sheet from off of him, and snatched up his blade, fallen near his hand, not quite pinned beside the dead oliphaunt’s back. He struggled to his feet, coughing upon the dust that wafted about him.
As he rounded the edge of the fallen beast’s back, a form leapt before him. A Man, though not clad as any Men he had ever seen. The Easterling released a wild cry, high and sharp, unlike an orc’s harsh snarl, and swung his wickedly curved blade. Merry ducked, swinging his blade instinctively, slicing into the Man’s body.
The Man went down with a cry, and did not move again as an orc came squealing upon Merry. Merry let the swing of his blade carry on into the orc, and the raging creature fell with a scream as well.
For a moment, Merry caught his breath, eyeing his blade at last, sickened at the sight of red blood mingling with black upon it. He glanced at the Man he’d killed, laying still upon the grass. The cloth enshrouding his face had fallen away, and Merry’s stomach turned into a knot at the quiet stillness that rested there. His skin was of a browner tone than that of the Men Merry knew. His brows were thick and strong, his nose clean and long, somewhat flatter than the long sharply drawn lines of the Men of Gondor or Rohan. He had no beard, and his jaw was strong and sharply honed, while thick waves of dark hair seeped from beneath the cloth wound about his head. Merry wondered for the briefest moment what his name was, if there was a woman waiting for him, back where he had come from, having left her by persuasion, or by force, Merry did not know. And now, she would never see him again-,
An orc’s guttural cry tore Merry from his reverie, and he looked up in time to duck an orc’s arching blade. He swung his own sword into an exposed spot upon the orc’s side, and the creature fell just as another Easterling came at him, screaming and cursing him in a language Merry did not understand. Gritting his teeth, Merry stabbed his blade home, and the Easterling fell beside the first Man, moaning. He mumbled something softly, reaching out and clapping the dead Man’s arm, before he too, shuddered and lay still.
Brothers? Merry mourned. But he did not have time to wonder long before another wild orc lunged near, and scooped him bodily up.
With a cry, Merry slashed his sword across the creature’s neck, and the orc’s strength faltered. Stabbing his blade home, he brought the orc down, and fell at last, from its iron grasp, and stumbled back, free again.
He turned away from the sight behind him, and staggered forward, seeking through the confusion for Éowyn.
Éowyn? Where was she? Was she still alive? Her body was not lying anywhere nearby, nor was Windfola’s. Among a group of riders some distance away, he could see Éowyn’s horse, riderless, stuttering nervously among the Rohirrim, having escaped the oliphaunt’s crushing weight. Éowyn must surely be alive nearby, as well. But where was she?
Merry could see through the haze of smoke and dust, the white coat of the king’s mount, Snowmane some distance away. Merry drew himself up, and gulped hard recalling how he had pledged his own sword to the king’s service. And knowing Éowyn, she would seek out her uncle. Tightening his fist about the haft of his blade, he scrambled determinedly forward, through the throbbing confusion about him, toward the king.
The tree at Lalaith’s elbow smelt sweet and fragrant, its branches straining upward toward the sky where it grew in its small patch of earth in a corner of the wall. Behind her, in a corner by the steps that mounted to the small veranda where Gandalf and Pippin sat talking quietly together, their blades held ready, a small flowering plant, proudly bearing cheerful red blossoms.
Were this a time of peace, if the shadow of death did not linger so near, perhaps she could pause here a moment, in this place. Legolas, were he with her, Lalaith sighed brokenly, might even pluck one of the sweet red blossoms to tuck playfully in her hair, his eyes adoring her as a smile twitched in the corner of his mouth, his head dipping toward hers as he bent to kiss her-, Lalaith’s heart clenched upon itself at the thought as another rolling boom shook the gate.
Ai, Legolas, she thought sadly. We had shared such hopes-,
Lalaith tightened her fist around her bow and drew in a shuddering breath as the gate quivered once again, the screeches and squeals of the orcs beyond the door echoing through the iron and wood of the barred gate.
Beregond stood near her, his helmet lost, grime caking his handsome face, his dark hair falling about him in a mane tangled as her own was, still unbound since her near escaped from the steward’s pyre. Beregond held a sharp lance in his hand, the tip tilted toward the gate, his eyes fixed with a burning light upon the wrought iron and wood that shuddered with another blow.
“Bergil,” the man muttered, glancing grimly at her as Lalaith’s eyes met his. “I know not where the lad is. I should have sent him with his mother-,”
“Pippin saw him briefly,” she muttered back, her words cut through with another booming echo. The trolls were pounding at the gate with great hammers, she guessed. “Doubtless, he is on a higher level, my friend.”
“Even so, if we cannot hold them here-,” his words trailed off, and Beregond said no more.
“I didn’t think it would end this way,” Pippin’s soft voice whispered from behind her, and at his tone, Lalaith’s throat grew tight, and she shut her eyes hard as wetness forced itself onto her lashes.
“End?” Gandalf returned, his ever assuring voice soft and consoling. “No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path-, one that we all must take.
“The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.”
“What, Gandalf?” Pippin whispered. “See what?”
“White shores,” Gandalf returned softly. “And beyond. A far green country under a swift sunrise.”
“Well,” Pippin sighed, a smile in his voice. “That isn’t so bad.”
Lalaith gulped as she drew her eyes open, and managed a small smile even as another boom shook the gate.
“No,” Gandalf murmured in return. “It isn’t.”
Another boom shook the gate, and for a brief moment, the door bowed inward as the faint sound of cracking wood echoed as the boom died away.
A heaviness settled over her heart. It would not be much longer-,
A hideous shriek, unearthly and piercing, sliced through the air above their heads, and several of the men cried out, their eyes lifted to the sky above them, in wild terror, many of them dropping their weapons, some others falling, as if rendered suddenly helpless, to their knees.
A blade of wrenching fire knifed across the back of her shoulder as Lalaith spun toward the source of the rending shriek, her heart leaping into her throat to see the black shadow of the great heavy dragon swooping down upon them from out of the sky, one of the Nazgûl mounted upon its back, a helm of spiked iron where its head would be, though Lalaith could see no face beneath the dark shadows of the helm.
The Witch-king of whom Gandalf had spoken, she realized clenching her teeth at the wrenching pain that seered across her shoulder as if a burning iron were pressing into her very flesh.
Crushing her pain from her mind, Lalaith leapt up with a cry, catching the skyward reaching branches of the tree the grew in the corner of the wall, and with swift grace, vaulted up the tree to the high corner of the wall, where she hopped to her feet again, snatching an arrow from her quiver in the same motion, and drawing it taut to her cheek.
“You,” a hissed breathy voice seethed from beneath the helmet of the wraith upon the mottled creature’s back, and Lalaith quavered beneath the gaze of the unseen face beneath the iron spiked helm.
Shuddering fiercely from fear and from pain, she released the string, and the arrow struck deep into the creature’s shoulder, well off of her mark. The creature shuddered and a screach emitted from its great tooth lined maw. But it did not withdraw, and rather, hovered near before, to Lalaith’s revulsion and terror, it reached out a clawed foot toward her, the beat of its naked wings sending a wafting stench down upon her. Against the near maddening pain that seemed to slice deep into the very bone of her back, she drew one of her knives from the quiver, and slashed at the clawed foot, sinking the blade deep into the sinewed flesh. Black blood burbled forth, yet still the undaunted claw came down upon her, its hideous weight knocking her flat to the stone of the wall where her head struck with a jarring crack, the fell beast’s claw pinning her beneath its crushing weight.
“Let-, let her go!”
The voice was Pippin’s and as she turned her head, she saw him, clambering up the steps of the parapet some distance away, brandishing his own sword bravely, though Lalaith could see terror upon his dear little face. Beregond was with him, and Gandalf as well.
The wraith turned and hissed bitterly at their approach. Wrenching the lines of the beast’s reins the wraith turned its mount’s head away, and Lalaith’s stomach dropped as she felt herself ripped upward from the parapet and into the sky, the beat of the beast’s putrid wings whipping through the air that caught at her wild hair as the burning city of Minas Tirith fell behind her.
“Long you have defied your fate, young Vala,” the Witch-king seethed above the beat of its mount’s naked wings as she twisted, helpless in the beast’s clawed foot. The beast swooped low over the battle field below her, a raging mass of horses and Men, and orcs, and great moving beasts with massive snouts, and fierce tusks. Mûmakil, she realized in the back of her desperate thoughts.
“But no longer will you escape death,” the wraith hissed.
With that, the claw peeled open, and Lalaith screamed in terror as she fell away into empty space, tumbling down through the air, the raging field of battle rushing up to meet her.