Once again, the door boomed and shuddered, as beyond, Saruman’s orcs rammed their spike ended battering ram into the hard oak of the door.
Wooden ceiling joists, benches, whatever was to be had within the hall, Aragorn and those around him, were bracing against the door.
“The fortress is taken.”
Théoden’s voice was haunted, void of hope where he stood within the door, Gamling at his side. Aragorn lifted his eyes, though not toward the king, but toward Lothriel.
“It is over.”
At the king’s words, she lifted her head from her knees where she sat unmoving beside the stone wall, and gazed at Théoden, her blue eyes hollow and empty. Her golden hair hung disheveled and dirty about her where she sat, wordless, and alone. Rumil and Orophin had left her, having gone elsewhere to help, and she remained, alone and silent, like a thin, wispy shadow, watching all, but saying nothing.
“You said this fortress would never fall while your men defend it.” Aragorn cried, as he with Legolas behind him, came to snatch up yet another wooden bench to thrust against the door, and the ceaseless ramming of the orcs beyond.
“They still defend it. The have died defending it!” He cried, striding nearer to the king as Legolas caught up the long wooden bench himself, and hoisted it toward the Men who were desperately shoving whatever brace they could find to keep the doors from giving way.
Théoden looked away, shameful and silent.
“Is there no other way for the women and children to get out of the caves?” Aragorn demanded, glancing at Lothriel’s dim eyes as Legolas grasped the edge of a nearby table, flinging off the contents with a clatter, as he jerked it toward the door, then stepped back, a look of grim resignation on his face as he caught one of his few remaining arrows from his quiver and fitted it to the string, waiting with maddening calm for the door to shatter inward.
“Is there no other way?” Aragorn shouted, when Théoden did not answer.
“There is one passage.” Gamling answer at last, with a tentative glance at his king. “It leads into the mountains.” As another resounding crash bent the doors inward, he quickly added, “But they will not get far the uruk-hai are too many.”
“Send word for the women and children to make for the mountain pass.” Aragorn demanded, clapping his hand pleadingly upon Gamling’s shoulder. “And barricade the entrance!”
“So much death.” Théoden muttered in a flat voice, and as Aragorn glanced at him, he realized that the king’s eyes were almost as empty as the lady Lothriel’s. “What can Men do against such reckless hate?”
Aragorn glanced over at the lady, and her eyes lifted toward his. They were empty of any trace of happiness, but there was something in them now, that had not been in them the night before. When he had left her here last, there had been a wild light in them, a longing to die, but not now, as if she had found some glimmer of hope to live for.
“Ride out with me.” He said to Théoden, almost under his breath.
Lothriel lifted her head higher as he spoke these words. She understood enough of the common tongue, he knew, to have comprehended his words.
“Ride out and meet them.”
Théoden’s head also lifted at this, and he studied Aragorn’s eyes hard. “For death and glory.” He hissed.
“For Rohan.” Aragorn breathed. “For your people.”
A soft brush brought his eyes around to Lothriel. She had stood.
“Let me come.” She said in softened Elvish tones. “Lend me a horse and a blade, and I will ride out with you.”
“My lady-,” Aragorn began, but fell silent at a wave from her hand.
“No, Arathornion. Do not deny me this!” She cut in firmly. “I could be slain as easily cowering in here, as I could out there with a sword in my hand. If I am fated to die, I would rather Haldir know I fought until the end.” Drawing in a broken sigh, she added more gently, “I swear to you, my lord, I do not wish to do this simply to allow the orcs to kill me. I have reason now, to stay alive, if I can.” Stepping near, she clasped his arm in thin, trembling fingers. “My lord, you must let me do this.”
Aragorn drew in a slow breath, feeling himself softening as he gazed into her tempered blue eyes. Lothriel would not be turned aside any more easily than Lalaith could, or the Lady Éowyn, he thought with a wane smile. Slender, strong tempered blades of steel, each of them, as courageous as any man.
Aragorn clapped a hand upon her armored shoulder, so small, and seemingly frail, though he knew the soul of a fearless warrior existed within. “Then we shall ride out together.”
At this, a slivered smile drew the corners of her lips upward.
“The sun is rising.”
The low spoken words came from Gimli, bringing Aragorn’s head up toward the high slotted window that peered out toward the east.
True to the Dwarf’s word, a ray of cool, early morning sunlight streamed in through the high window, growing gradually brighter, until it filled the room with golden light.
Look to my coming at first light on the fifth day. Gandalf’s promise once again echoed in his mind, as if from ages past. At dawn, look to the east.
“Yes.” Théoden hissed, his eyes growing bright with a new, fierce hope. Aragorn’s eyes lowered to the king’s. “Yes.” He repeated, stronger now. “The horn of Helm Hammerhand,” he declared, a firm strength entering his voice, “shall sound in the Deep. One last time.”
“Yes.” Gimli crowed, brandishing up his axe. Even as another splintering crash rocked the door inward.
Théoden strode near, clapping one hand upon Aragorn’s shoulder, and the other upon Lothriel’s. “Let this be the hour when we draw swords together.”
Without needing the order, Gimli scampered away through the arching doorway where worn and ragged stone steps wound up and away toward the great horn.
“Send for horses!” The king commanded as the Dwarf disappeared, but the words were hardly out of his mouth before several of the Rohirrim, guessing the king’s order, came running from a side corridor with several horses, already saddled and bridled.
Aragorn snatched the reins of Brego and Hasufel, tossing Hasufel’s leather reins, into Lothriel’s hands.
“Hasufel is his name. He will bear you faithfully.” He said as she swung easily into the saddle as if she had ridden all her life.
“My lady. Your blade.” He said with a terse nod, picking up from the stone floor, a discarded sword, notched yet still sharp, and offering the hilt up to her.
“Thank you, my lord.” She nodded, clasping the sword, and lifting the blade, giving several swipes at the air to test its weight as Aragorn leaped into the saddle of his own mount. Beside him, Legolas, grim faced, was already seated upon Arod’s back, awaiting the orcs to breach the cracking barricade.
“Fell deeds awake.” Théoden breathed as he turned his mount’s head toward the cracking door as again the orc’s battering ram boomed beyond it. “Now for wrath,” he hissed in a fierce voice as Aragorn drew his sword with a harsh rasp, “now for ruin, and a red dawn.”
Théoden pulled his kingly helmet upon his head as the horn of Helm Hammerhand for whom the fortress had been named, gave a fierce, blast, echoing long and deep through the halls, between the great high cliffs of the ravine, and above the armies of Saruman.
In the next moment, the door shattered inward.
Legolas set his jaw hard. Heated fury flowed into his blood as the door at last, weary from its tiring battle with the orcs beyond, finally lost its strength and fell, shattering inward, and orcs like so many armored beetles came streaming through.
“Forth, Eorlingas!” Came the cry of King Théoden, beneath the ever enduring blast of the great horn, as his sword whipped above his head.
As one, the horsemen sprang forward, Legolas only a short breadth behind the king, Aragorn’s mount beside him with the lady Lothriel riding fearlessly at Aragorn’s shoulder, her fair eyes hard and set. A warrior’s eyes.
Over the invading orcs the horses plunged, Legolas’ sword hacking wrathfully down upon the helms and bodies of the howling grasping beasts, splitting helmets and piercing through thick breastplates in his tireless anger. Out upon the pillared porch the horses’ hooves clattered, the blades of their riders furiously flashing as they sliced like a wedge through the surging tide of mottled orcish bodies. To the invading orcs, such a surge came as a bitter, unexpected shock. They had not expected such a strong last defense, furtive, and perhaps hopeless, Legolas admitted to himself, though only in the dark unexplored corners of his mind.
Ever as he cut and hacked his way through the orcs, down the steep stone steps and round the curving walls of the Keep toward the shattered gate, his thoughts were on Lalaith. He had to believe he would see her again. He could not let himself think otherwise. Even as the riders, Théoden at their head, shot through the gate, spilling orcs over the edges as they plunged onto the causeway, and he saw the black sea of them still surging below. So many orcs yet remained, lumbering up the causeway like thick black moss creeping up over the bark of a tree, leaving sickness and rot in its wake.
The lady Lothriel hardly seemed taken aback at all by the undefeatable masses below her as she set her teeth hard, hacking and stabbing at any of the foul beasts that dared to approach her, cutting them down as fiercely as any of the other men.
But could they defeat them all? Would their strength last against such numbers? Doubting questions began to creep unwanted from the hidden corners of his mind. But then at a murmured word from Aragorn, Legolas’ fears fell back, dying quickly like the orcs beneath his blade.
“Gandalf!” Aragorn uttered breathlessly. Legolas looked up from the orc he had cut down, his eyes lifting toward the high eastern ridge of the ravine, where a figure appeared within the rising light of the morning as if he had ridden out of the sun itself.
A figure in white sat with ease upon a white stallion, a staff clasped in his hand as Shadowfax lifted itself up upon its hind legs, pawing anxiously at the air.
“My lady!” He cried to Lothriel, as stabbed through an orc’s throat, then looked up as she heard his voice. “Mithrandir!” He called out, pointing with his sword and grinned as hope, long dormant within him, surged within his heart, bright and glad as an armored figure, the familiar white horsetail trailing from the crest of his helm, appeared beside Gandalf.
Her eyes shot up to the high ridge, and a thin look of grim satisfaction cast itself slowly over her face.
“Rohirrim!” The young man’s voice echoed easily across the distance as a great host of mounted warriors appeared over the ridge at his side.
“Éomer.” Théoden murmured, pride rising in his voice as for his own son.
“To the king!” Éomer’s strong voice cried out across the pooled masses of orcs, and as one, the riders of Rohan came streaming, over the ridge in a swift, flood of numberless horses and riders, Éomer and Gandalf at their head.
Screeching, fierce and angry, the orcs turned toward the descending flood, and lowered their cruel jagged bladed spears, meaning to impale Shadowfax and the first of the horses through their chests. But in the final moments before Gandalf and the sea of riders reached the jagged line of spears, the sun, clear and white, crested the ridge, glaring blindingly straight into the eyes of the orcs. Throwing up their hands in maddened confusion, Gandalf and Éomer plunged into them, their mounts easily leaping the wavering, fallen line of orcish spears as the orcs fell beneath their hooves, screaming in terror as the blades of the Rohirrim cut them down in their sightless confusion, giving way gradually as the mounted soldiers sliced their way slowly toward their king.
“Treebeard, Treebeard, look!” Lalaith cried, leaping from her seat upon Treebeard’s back, and gesturing frantically at a gathering of hunched and scrawny orcs, that had managed to loop a thick rope around one Ent’s neck, and had yanked him to the ground. They were swarming over him now, like infesting ants, hacking into his wooden body, with sharp cracking axes.
“Mind your head, my little Valië!” Treebeard roared to Lalaith who stood, perched precariously upon his shoulder.
Ducking her head, Lalaith clung tightly on as Treebeard reached down, and picked up a giant boulder. He lifted it above his head with a great groan, and then with a mighty roar, he flung it at the swarming orcs, scattering and crushing them as it bowled over them with a thunderous rumble. The Ent, who had given his name as Bregalad in her language or Quickbeam, in the common tongue, Lalaith recalled from their brief introduction before the battle began, was hardly injured at all. He was one of the younger Ents, taller and more supple of movement than Treebeard, and rather hasty, Treebeard had tisked, for an Ent. Quickbeam lumbered to his feet, and offered Treebeard, and his three small charges a grateful wave before he lumbered enthusiastically off to crush more orcs beneath his splayed root toes.
“Yes!” Pippin cheered at Quickbeam’s rescue, the three of them clinging tightly to Treebeard’s branches as the old Ent turned back to his own business of stomping orcs beneath his own heavy wooden feet. “Here, Lalaith, have another rock!”
Pippin was the keeper of the rocks, a small pile of stones Lalaith and the two Hobbits had hurriedly gathered into the little star-silver blanket, from a ragged gash the Ents had torn open in the wall that ringed Isengard. Pippin held the little blanket now like a knap-sack, withdrawing rocks now and then so that the three of them could fling stones at the orcs lumbering and squealing below them.
He tossed her one, a rather sharp, flat stone, which she caught deftly in one hand.
“Watch this!” Lalaith cried with a hint of laughter in her voice as she took careful aim, and flung the rock in a horizontal arch as if she meant to skip it across a lake. Instead, it smacked into the head of an orc, before it hurtled wildly into the back of another orc’s head, knocking them both to the ground.
“That was luck!” Pippin protested gleefully before he grabbed a rock himself, and pitched it at an orc where it stood at the edge of one of the chasms that had been gouged harshly down into the earth. With a fading squeal, it toppled over the precipice, and disappeared below.
“Ah, fine hits! Fine hits, both of them!” Treebeard praised cheerfully.
Pippin tossed one now to Merry, who flung it fiercely at yet another orc, the stone connecting with its skull in a hollow thump, sending the creature sprawling into the earth.
Lalaith stood higher upon Treebeard’s shoulder, clinging to one of his smaller branches as she surveyed the scene around her. The smoking ring of Isengard into which they had penetrated, looked like as if an entire forest had come awake. Ents were tromping swiftly about, swinging their branching arms, or other great clubs they had snatched up, smacking orcs about, or crushing them beneath their feet as the vile beasts scurried vainly about in a futile attempt to escape. Others simply kicked them into oblivion with their long gangly wooden legs like so many annoying little rats. Here and there, a group of two or three Ents would grasp their branching fingers around many of the high wooden scaffolds or the great wooden wheels, and with but two or three tugs, would send them crashing down. One into the pits, smashing orcs below them as they fell.
One rather stout Ent had found an ingenious way of disposing of the orcs, for he would snatch up two of the beasts at a time, and with a great crack, smack their heads together before flinging their limp bodies aside. It seemed almost humorous, but for the grisly work that it was.
“Oh no! Look!” Merry cried, a sudden surge of panic in his voice, and as Treebeard swiveled to see what it was that had caught Merry’s attention, a low, deep gasp came to his throat.
A cry escaped Lalaith’s throat as well, for another of the Ents Treebeard knew well, an Ent named Beechbone, was on fire! Several orcs, it seemed, had fired blazing arrows at him, and now the poor Ent was thrashing about in a pained panic as he flamed like a torch.
Treebeard swiveled, his eyes rising toward the great stone dam high within the foothills of the mountain above Isengard. Many Ents were already scaling up the steep ravine, toward the great stone barricade that held back the river.
“Break the dam!” Treebeard cried, his deep booming voice carrying easily up the ragged ravine. “Release the river!”
One of the Ents had already grasped onto the thick beams of metal bracing the stone of the dam in place, and as Treebeard’s voice rolled up the mountain, the metal beams were ripped effortlessly away. The Ent turned, striding slowly away and up a steep incline as a spurt of water burst forth from between the stones. The streaming rush of water grew rapidly into a bursting torrent, pushing the massive blocks of stone out of its way, until the entire dam caved downward under the unbearable pressure of the water carrying wood and stone, and squealing orcs along with it. Down the ravine it poured in a crashing, deafening torrent, its speed only increasing as it thundered into the valley of Nan Curunír, and into the ring surrounding Orthanc.
“Pippin, Lalaith, hold on!” Merry shouted as the vast torrent of water boomed closer and doomed orcs streamed screeching past Treebeard’s legs in a vain attempt to escape the deluge.
Treebeard braced his stout legs into the ground, and the Hobbits and Lalaith clasped hard onto his branches as the flood approached, and with a deafening boom, crashed around Treebeard and his fellow Ents, throwing him backward a step before he recovered his balance.
“Merry!” Pippin’s voice screeched, and as spray washed her vision, Lalaith jerked her eyes toward the youngest Hobbit, whose grip on Treebeard’s slippery branch broke away. His arms flailed wildly, but the flailing weight of the little bundle of rocks only jerked him out of Treebeard’s branches, With a cry, he fell backward, a look of stark horror on his face, toward the foaming deluge.
“Pippin!” Lalaith screamed, and dove away from Treebeard’s shoulder after him, catching his small wrist in the very instant they both disappeared beneath the cold, surging water.
Silence closed in around her, and she could see nothing. She felt Pippin’s wrist within her hand, and she clung tightly, not allowing herself to let go as the torrent swept them both away, tumbling them over submerged broken scaffolding, and jagged rocks. She could not tell where she was, where the surface was, or even why the speed of the water seemed only to increase. She wondered, detachedly, if the reason for the speed of the water, was that it might be pouring in an unrestrained waterfall down into one of the many deep, fire gouged caverns. Somewhere far away as if from some unreachable distance, she heard voices high pitched and panicked, calling her name, and Pippin’s name. But they were fading in her ears.
She felt light, as if she had grown suddenly weightless, and a single thought spoke vehemently to her thoughts as darkness welled in her mind. Do not let go of Pippin. And then she felt nothing at all.