The sky above the Hornburg was starless, for thick clouds blanketed the sky, from one horizon to the other, giving Haldir not even a fleeting glimpse of the tiny points of stars that hung unmoving in the sky above them. The chill air beneath the clouds hung low and heavy, and smelled distantly of coming rain.
Along the walls, torches had been set to ward of the thick darkness, and the flames licked upward, casting shadows here and there, only to snatch them back again. Haldir’s eyes were keenly fixed upon the harsh scars of flickering light that drew closer and closer toward the fortress, torches borne in the hands of the approaching orcs as the heavy tramp of many thousands of feet, once only a distant, ominous murmur, grew slowly louder, echoing back off the encroaching walls of the ravine, and vibrating now, through the very stone beneath his feet. Even in the thick mirky darkness, he could pick out the forms of individual orcs now. Their thick helms and armor were unembellished except for the smattered splash of white on each chest or helmet in the form of a hand. Their bodies were bound in thick muscle, and their teeth were bared and sharp, eagerly anticipating the battle for which they had been bred. Black banners, branded with the white mark of Saruman’s hand, floated about in the field of harsh, pointed spears above the vile, inky flood that was tramping its slow way toward them.
Drawing in a deep breath, Haldir turned and glanced toward the ground where the lines of reinforcements waited. He easily pick out Lothriel among them, her bow resting lightly in her hand as she waited, as calm faced as any of the others, and a thin smile came to his lips as he wondered how he had not noticed her before tonight. Even as distracted as he had been, he should have realized her presence long before they had arrived at the fortress. But then, perhaps it had been the will of the Valar that she come, and so his eyes had been blinded to her. He desperately hoped so. For if the Valar had willed her here, then surely, their protection would be with her as well.
As if sensing his eyes upon her, Lothriel lifted her gaze, and found his.
Haldir’s soul grew warm as she found his eyes and smiled. Her smile, filled with the sweet secrets of memories only they shared, buoyed his sagging spirits, as he gazed down at her from atop the wall. It lent him added strength, needed desperately now, as the tramp of the orcs’ feet grew to a noisome boom as Saruman’s horde grew closer.
He drew in a breath, seeing nothing now but her, still wishing painfully that she were far from here, nestled within the safe borders of the Golden Wood. But he could not begrudge her coming here. Ever since his departure from their flet, he had inwardly berated himself that he would allow what could have been a tender parting, to explode into angry words. The greater part of the blame, he knew, rested upon his shoulders, and he knew he had deserved her stony silence instead of the soft warmth of the lingering farewell he had hoped for. Her spirit was too strong to be kept locked within the safe, gilded cage of Lórien; it had not been right for him to insist that she stay. And he was grateful for the chance her coming had given him to reaffirm his love for her, and to be assured of her love. For perhaps it was the last-,
He drew in a sharp breath and struck the thought dead before it could go further. He could not allow himself to think in such a way. Of course they would both survive. He had promised her they would. They would return to Lórien together, and they would build their life and their love as they had planned, as if this battle had never been. And he would give her a child. As beautiful a child as she wove upon the tapestry that waited patiently at home for her slender skillful hands to return, and complete it.
Beneath him, through the darkness, he watched her eyes grow wistful, almost as if she guessed his thoughts. And her perfect lips, so sweet, so moist and warm to touch, mouth the words, I love you across the dark distance, and he returned the sentiment with one last fleeting smile before he tore his eyes from hers and turned forward again.
Haldir’s sight returned to the ever nearing orcs, pooling ever closer, illuminated by a flash of lightning that knifed across the black, boiling underbellies of the clouds. Another flash and a rumbling boom followed closely behind the first, and the entire ravine was swathed for an instant, in a flash of blinding white light, giving contour to the gouged rock walls of the precipices rising above them. The flash of momentary brilliance illuminated the faces of his fellow Elves, and flashed off the wizened aged faces side by side with the tender, untried, youthful faces of the Men above the gate. And a moment later, the clouds opened, and splatters of rain began to fall cold and steaming through the heavy chilled air, coming down upon them now in sudden drenching currents.
Lothriel raised her eyes to the sky as the rain came down in sheets, soaking rapidly through her cloak, slipping in streams beneath her armor, and soaking through her clothes, drenching her to her skin, and quickly turning the dirt beneath her feet to a thick quagmire. She sighed, reminding herself that the mud would be a hindrance to the orcs, as well.
She could see nothing of what the others upon the wall could see, but she had been listening to the distant approach of the vast horde, and could guess at the sheer numbers of them, by the way their heavy tramping made the ground beneath her feet shiver. The relentless, heavy tromping, mingled with the clank of heavy armor grew steadily nearer.
“Show them no mercy,” cried the voice of Lord Aragorn from above her upon the wall, and she lifted her eyes as he strode among the ranks of warriors spaced three men deep along the parapet, “for you shall receive none!”
She gulped hard, taking his words to her heart as a hard knot tightened in her belly. She pressed her free hand against her stomach, and shook her head, willing the mild, though incessant nausea away. It was only her nervousness and fear. She could conquer it.
Beyond the wall, a low growl rolled up, deep throated and loud, and as if it were a command that only the orcs could understand, the heavy treading of their feet came to a sudden, eerie halt, followed by silence amidst the ceaseless pattering of the rain.
Lothriel shifted her feet nervously. Oh, that she could see what was going on! Beyond the wall, came a long, drawn out bellow, and at that sound as if on command, a harsh pounding began again. But it was not the tramping of feet. The noise was uniform, as the marching of their iron shod feet had been, but harsher. Like the hard, incessant hammering of a battering ram.
Their spears, she guessed suddenly. They were using the butts of their spears to pound the sopping ground.
Above her, she heard the harsh metallic scrape of a sword as Lord Aragorn drew his sword free of its sheath. Palpable fear waited in the rain drenched air as the unseen orcs beyond the wall pounded their spears into the ground in mockery of the Men and Elves who stood watching them from their defenses.
A flurry of movement alerted her elven ears through the incessant pounding, and the clatter of the rain, and she lifted her eyes to see the Men cluttered grimly at the defenses above the gate, with arrows set, and the strings of their bows drawn to their cheeks.
How long could this standoff last, she wondered to herself, before the orcs moved? The beasts beyond the wall seemed to be waiting for something. Waiting to be given a reason to attack. But the Men of Rohan were not fools, Lothriel told herself. They would not willingly give the orcs reason to-
The thought that was beginning to give her mind a sliver of comfort froze suddenly as, from the wall high above her, she heard the familiar twang and the zip of an arrow flying from the bowstring. Someone had fired! An instant later, the painful pounding of the orc’s heavy staves rumbled into silence. One of them must have been struck.
“Hold!” cried Lord Aragorn’s voice from above her. But he could not retract the arrow.
Lothriel clenched her eyes shut for a moment, hating now, the sounds of fury and raw hatred that rose from the throats of the mindless beasts beyond the wall, and shivered through her limbs. It rose to a swell, far greater than anything she had heard until now, almost drowning out the hideous roar that charged the orcs forward. The muddied ground beneath her began to tremble, almost violently at the pounding of unnumbered feet as the orcs beyond, rushed the walls.
“Prepare to fire!”* Lord Aragorn cried upon the wall, as down the line, another voice echoed his order.
Lothriel drew in a shaking breath as she and the Elves beside and behind her, snatched arrows from their quivers and set them to the string. Above her, she could see Haldir at the balustrade, an arrow nocked, his bowstring drawn to his cheek. His stance was taut, ready for battle, yet still and silent, as unmoving as a young tree as he stood beneath the rain. Rivulets trickled down his armor, over his broad, cloaked shoulders, and through his golden hair. She drew in a shaking breath and allowed herself a slim smile through her mounting fear as her heart gave a fierce thump of pride. He was one whose courage was undaunted. As the stars in the sky, he was to her, for though the distant sparks of the stars were veiled now by the clouds, she knew they were there, ever fixed and unmoving upon their course.
“Release the arrows!” Lord Aragorn’s voice reached a crescendo as his voice echoed off the walls of the ravine. The twang of bowstrings snapping back into place flew up and down the parapet as arrows hurtled downward into the throng of orcs. Beyond the wall, the familiar sound of arrows punching bluntly through thick armor and harsh orcish screams greeted her ears as volley after volley rained down now, upon them. Lothriel set her teeth grimly, and lifted her eyes to Lord Aragorn, visible beneath the wildly flickering torchlight upon the wall, awaiting his orders.
“Give them a volley.” The staunch voice of Théoden, the king, filtered down to her through the rain and the distance, and though she did not understand his words entirely, she instinctively knew the meaning even before another Man shouted, “Fire!”
And the arrows of the Rohirrim sprang outward, flying down thickly into the encroaching mass of orcs.
“The arrows!” Lord Aragorn shouted now, turning and raising his sword. Lothriel sucked in a sharp breath. This was the signal she and her comrades behind the wall had waited for, and she drew the string of her bow to her cheek, raising her sights high toward the dark void of rainwashed sky above the parapet. “Fire!” He screamed, and swung his sword in an arch, outward toward the orcs.
With a rush of release, Lothriel let her arrow fly. She watched the bright shaft, casting silver light off of it as it flew upward and arched over the heads of her comrades. Her arrow had not disappeared before she had another arrow to the string, drawn back and released, her hand once again to her quiver before the second shaft had even cleared the wall.
She drew in a deep breath, tasting the clean, sweet tang of rain drenched air, as her mind settled onto its task. She could not see her arrows once they had flown beyond the wall, but she imagined the results of her work in her mind; each arrow flying true into an orc, one that would not trouble her people, or their mortal allies again. In spite of her inability to see her quarry, Lothriel decided, this was not so different than the work she had done as a border guard on the edges of Lórien. Perhaps, she hoped, the fortifications would be enough to make the orc host easy work for them.
A tentative smile had not yet begun to creep upon her lips before it gave way to a grimace of horror as, upon the wall, Elves began to cry out in pain and fear, and all along the line, they began to fall. Beyond the wall, invisible to her still, she recognized the hard thump of crossbows as they released their thick, heavy quarrels upward into the defenders of the wall.
Directly above her, one of the dark haired Elves of Rivendell stumbled backward, a thick black arrow piercing through his armor, and fell with a wane cry downward, where he landed with a hard thump upon the rain soaked ground at the base of the wall.
A gasp ripped from her throat as Lothriel dashed to his side. She winced bitterly at the solid black shaft that had punched cleanly through his armor, and tried to ignore it as she knelt over him, and placed a hand against his throat. Her eyes she focused away from his wound, and on his face. His was a strong, fearless face, his open eyes a bright green, flecked with sparks of gold and brown. But there was no response in them as they peered unseeing, up at her. And there was no soft pulse beneath her fingers.
Thick bitter tears stung her eyes, as she denied what she saw. He could not have died. Such a fair, noble one who should have lived many more long merry years within the sheltered vale of Imladris. Doubtless such a one as he would have a lover waiting for him, watching and hoping, with ceaseless prayers to the Valar for his safe return. But her prayers, Lothriel realized as grief became a hard knot in her chest, would not find the answer she hoped for.
“Ladders!” Lord Aragorn’s voice cried out from above, bringing her at last out of her lethargy. And her eyes shot upward. She heard the repeated thump of heavy wooden ladders striking the balustrade up and down the wall, and a moment later, his voice rang out again, “Swords! Swords!” and the rasp of metal sliding from the sheath rattled up and down the wall. Suddenly, her strength was back. Faster than thought, she found herself once again on her feet, her fist tightening around her bow as she sprinted along the wall toward the ground beneath where Haldir stood. She ground to a stop at the edge of a murky pool of water that had formed around the base of the wall as it trickled over the mass of thick, rotting flotsam that had collected at the iron grated culvert before it drained outward into the valley. At the edge of the water, she glanced upward, snatching an arrow from her quiver. She had a perfect angle from here. Her eyes found Haldir, sword in hand, as his blade plunged into a snarling orc that had just scrambled to the top of the wall. It squealed, not unlike an enraged boar as it dropped out of sight, but not before another orc, a massive, muscular creature, nothing but muscle and sinew beneath its mottled, greasy skin pounced over the ledge of another ladder, just behind him. With a scowl, Lothriel raised her bow, drew the string to her cheek, and let her arrow fly, burying itself to the white feather fletchings in the creature’s side before it could cut her beloved down from behind.
Haldir turned just as the orc uttered a muffled squeal, and crumpled, tumbling over the edge of the parapet. Glancing down, his eyes caught the gaze of his benefactor, and he offered her a quick grin before he turned back to his own grizzly business.
Lothriel’s bow was already drawn to her cheek again, her arrows following each other in rapid succession, finding orcs as they scrambled to the tops of their ladders and pounced over, thick and dark, like so many black, swarming beetles. She had promised Haldir that she would stay on the ground, but she would not take her promise as an excuse to cower away like a fearful child.
* The Sindarin verb had– translates literally to hurl, or throw forcefully. Of course, in English we would translate that to “fire“, as “Prepare to hurl!” means something completely different in our modern vernacular.