Chapter 18 – The Heroes of Isengard
I stayed for a while, watching the flames slowly die down, and the timber crumble away as it turned to charcoal and ash.
The people had gone back in to Helms Deep, an air of sadness around them. It would be a while until things could get back to normal. Legolas stood beside me, our hands clasped together. We said nothing, but stared in to the dwindling fires. At last, I couldn't watch anymore. I gently pulled his hand, and we trudged back in to Helms Deep as one.
We joined the others in the main hall. They were all silent, each lost in their own thought. As we entered, Théoden stood from his chair and approached me. I stopped in the middle of the hall, still holding on to Legolas' hand. Théoden stopped in front of me, and spoke, his voice laced with grief.
"I am sorry for your losses. I cannot imagine the pain you must be going through."
I smiled sadly at him, stomach clenching tightly for a moment.
"It is the same pain that you feel. You lost many good men, too. Do not bury your own sadness; allow yourself to mourn, Théoden."
I answered him quickly, and reached out a hand to touch his shoulder. He nodded, and walked back to his seat, his whole demeanour downcast. The atmosphere in the room was heavy, and I felt suffocated. There had been too much grief for one day; we all needed something to concentrate on.
"Helms Deep is safe. We should move back to Edoras. It is safe there now."
Éomer broke the silence, his voice commanding, yet respectful, as he addressed his uncle. Théoden looked at him, and in his eyes I could see respect, and an overwhelming relief that his nephew had arrived to save us all, and lived to see the fruits of his labour. They looked at each other for a moment longer before Éomer bowed, and turned to leave the room. He stopped beside me, and laid a hand on my shoulder. I clasped it tightly, silently thanking him for his support. He smiled weakly and exited the room, his footsteps ringing out.
"I should help prepare the people to move. I take my leave."
Théoden murmured more to himself than to us, as he rose from his chair again. He didn't look at any of us as he left the room. He was too wrapped up in his thoughts. Legolas and I moved closer to the others. Both of us still held tightly to the other's hand; we were unwilling to let go. No-one spoke for a moment; it was if we could not find the right words.
"Our next move should be to find those wayward Hobbits. With any luck, they may still be in Fangorn Forest."
Gandalf spoke first, his voice authorotive.
"How do we know that they will still be alive? Those woods are no place for any unarmed man, let alone two Hobbits."
Aragorn sounded unusually pessimistic. He caught my eye and I was struck by the bleakness in his.
"Faith, Aragorn. That is all we have now. Merry and Pippin are resourceful creatures; they will probably have charmed the trees with their words."
A ghost of a smile flitted across everyone's faces.
"That is decided. We leave tomorrow, as soon as we can."
Gandalf concluded our impromptu gathering. Gandalf left the room in a swirl of white. Gimli left too, his normal exuberant self diminished by the atmosphere of desolation. Legolas and I began to walk off when Aragorn's anguished voice rang out.
"How can you be so calm? How can you control your grief?"
I stared at him in shock. The strong, iron-willed man I knew as Aragorn had been replaced by an ashen husk. Legolas and I looked at each other, and together, we strode forwards and gathered him in an embrace. His shoulders shook with barely concealed sobs, and his hands clutched tightly to us.
"We grieve as you do, mellon."
Legolas comforted Aragorn, his voice low. I did not trust myself to speak. Eventually, Aragorn quietened down, and his breath no longer came in harsh gasps. I pulled away slightly, and grasped his face between my hands. His dark eyes were hollow; guilt, anger and sadness flashed in his eyes.
"It is natural to feel guilty: you survived and they did not. You ask yourself why you survived. The question rings in your head at all times. It is a question I have been asking myself of late. The answer to that question has nothing to do with luck. It has naught to do with your skill with a sword. The simple truth is that it was fate. The Valar have a greater purpose for you. You survive because you must. You can mourn for the friends you lost, but do not give in to your grief. To do that would be to dishonour their memories. You must carry on; you must remember them. It will be a hard road, but know this: you are not alone. We will be with you every step of the way."
The words burst out of me in a torrent of feeling as I strove to comfort him. The emotions in his eyes faded, and I could see a glint of his normal spark. My little speech had served another purpose: I had comforted both myself and Legolas at the same time. We had both been struggling to try and move on. My words had hit home; all three of us were united in our losses, and, as such, each of our loads had been lightened. We stayed huddled together in our corner of the hall, silent, as we all managed to take one step forward on our way; on our way to moving on.
I walked in to the stables, breathing in the scent of hay and oats. On returning to my room, I found my clothes washed and mended. I had returned the dress that morning; I had no need of fine clothes now.
Horses shifted and snorted in their mangers, and the sound of horses chomping at their feed filled the air. Fëa was at the end. She was resting, and her eyes were half closed. She looked well: her coat was glossy, and her mane and tail were free from tangles. I walked in to her manger, and gently stroked her nose. She whinnied softly as she came awake, her intelligent, liquid eyes staring at me.
"Where do we go now?"
Her feathery voice sounded in my head. I placed my forehead against hers, silent. She stayed still, sensing my anxiety.
"We go to Fangorn Forest, in search of our friends. We believe they may still be there."
The dark horse snorted nervously and tossed her head.
"Isengard stands close to the ancient woods. Too close."
I stroked her nose, trying to send her some peace.
"Yet we must find them."
She did not speak, and she shifted away from me. I could see the tension running through her body, making her flanks quiver. Isengard held bad memories for us both; I understood her desire not to go anywhere near it again. I silently exited her manger, and closed the wooden bar.
"I understand if you do not wish for me to be your rider any longer. I can find a new horse."
Fëa neighed loudly, and she spun suddenly to face me, her feet skittering all over the place. She snorted heavily, and I could see the whites of her eyes.
"Find a new horse? You insult me, Child of the Stars. I did not imply that I did not want you as my rider, only that I wish not to go near Isengard. However, I will carry you there since you wish it so."
I nodded, hiding a smile. I did not know that I meant that much to her. I stroked her again, placing a soft kiss on her nose. She whickered, and pushed her nose against my hand. I giggled and continued stroking her, but turned as I heard footsteps sound in the relatively quiet stables. Gimli, Gandalf, Aragorn and Legolas had come in. I knew then that we should leave. I opened Fëa's manger, and walked on. She knelt down and I mounted her, holding on as she got to her feet. She shifted from foot to foot; I knew she was eager to be off.
"We should stay at the rear."
I leant forward and rubbed her between the ears as I spoke to her. She snorted, obviously displeased with my decision, but she didn't move. I looked up as hoofs echoed. Gandalf had exited the stables atop Shadowfax, and Aragorn had followed on Brego. Gimli and Legolas were both on one horse, the fiery Arod. I bit back a laugh as I caught sight of Gimli's uneasy face. I spurred Fëa on, and she trotted after the others. We emerged in to the morning sun, and I closed my eyes, revelling in the warmth.
We exited Helms Deep, the horse's hooves loud on the Causeway. There were still traces of the battle around us, but I refused to look; I did not need to be reminded. As soon as we were clear of the Causeway, Shadowfax broke in to a canter, in the direction of Fangorn Forest. The others followed suit, but I made Fëa stay back.
"Why do you deny me the chance to gallop like my brother?"
Her voice sounded faintly pleading, and I smiled as I explained to her.
"You are faster than Brego and Arod; you would over take them and we must stay at the back. Letting them get ahead allows you the chance to stretch your legs and simply gallop."
Fëa reared up slightly in her excitement. I grinned, and made her wait a little longer. The other three horses were quite a distance now.
As soon as I said the word, she shot forwards, her hooves kicking up little clumps of dirt. I leant low over her neck, and my hands tangled in her mane. She whinnied with delight, and tossed her head. Laughter bubbled up and escaped my lips. The feeling of the wind rushing past my face, and the sunshine on us was beautiful.
I looked up at the sky, and for a moment I saw Haldir's face in the wisps of white clouds high above us. I waved up at the sky as we galloped on, knowing that he could see me. I saw his face break in to a grin before the cloud shifted and drifted away. I knew he wanted me to be happy. In my head, I heard Elven voices, their words like a trickling stream. Those I had lost were in a place of peace now, joined with the Makers of this world. My necklace grew warm, and I tingled all over. Fëa continued to gallop; I could practically feel the joy radiating from her. We had begun to catch up to the others, and I could see Fangorn Forest up ahead. I cast one last look up at the sky. A stream of sunlight broke through the clouds. A huddle of Elves was outlined in the light. Their right hands were raised in a farewell. I raised my hand as well, but they had faded.
We had almost caught up with the others, who had paused at the edge of the forest. Fëa slowed to a slow canter. I lifted my hand to wipe away a solitary tear that had escaped, feeling the heavy burden of grief beginning to lift.
The horses picked their way through the forest. Shadowfax seemed undaunted, and strode on. Brego followed him closely, and I could hear him snort occasionally, as a bird screeched and flapped away, or as a twig snapped under his hoof. Arod was decidedly more nervous: he danced from side to side, his head held high. He spooked as a branch brushed his side, and shot forward, almost unseating Gimli. Legolas was completely balanced on Arod; he wasn't fazed by his horse's antics. I drew level with him, and Fëa touched her nose to his neck. He calmed slightly, but he still skittered about. Finally, we reached the other side of the forest.
My mouth fell open. Orthanc, the tower of Isengard, was surrounded by water, and the pits that had glowed with never-ending flames were now quiet, smoke curling upwards. Ents stood near the tower, or in the water. It seemed as if there had been a battle. My eyes gradually focussed on two small figures sitting on the broken wall. As we got closer, I felt my face split in to a grin. By the Valar, they had survived! As they caught sight of us, they stood and waved. I urged Fëa on and she trotted to the front, stopping as she got to the wall. The two Hobbits were laughing as they clambered down.
I slid off Fëa, landing in the water with a splash. I held my arms open and they hugged me tightly. I held them close; against all the odds, they had survived. They pulled back, and smiled up at me, their eyes shining with happiness. I couldn't say anything against the welling emotion in my throat. I pulled them in to a hug again, ignoring their protests.
The others rode up, and I released them, watching as they ran around the horses, laughing and greeting each member in turn. They fell silent as they looked up at Gandalf, awe and disbelief clear on their faces. Gandalf chuckled and smiled down at them. He shook his head and moved towards Orthanc.
"Merry, you can ride with me. Pippin, go with Aragorn."
I nodded at the Hobbits and they quickly complied. Where we were standing, there was a lump of stone that was perfect for mounting Fëa. We climbed up and I lifted Merry on to Fëa, and then mounted her in front of him. He wrapped his arms tightly round my waist as Fëa followed Shadowfax. Gandalf was near the base of Orthanc. A giant Ent stood before him. Its branches were gnarled, and moss hung from them like strands of hair. I could make out a face in the wide trunk.
"Young master, Gandalf. I'm glad you've come. Wood and water, stock and stone I can master, but there's a wizard to manage here; locked in his tower."
The Ent's voice boomed out, making me jump slightly. Gandalf nodded and stared up at the tower.
"And there, Saruman must remain under your guard, Treebeard."
Gandalf answered the Ent, his voice hard. The Ent inclined his head, the branches creaking slightly. I stared up at the tower too. My palm throbbed and I clenched it in to a fist. No. I would not give in, not now.
"The filth of Saruman is washing away. Trees will come back to live here."
Treebeard spoke again, and turned to look at the other Ents, who were making their way back up the slope towards the forest. I looked down as I heard a splash. Pippin was leaning down in to the water. He straightened, holding something in his hands. He turned, and I bit back a shriek. He held the orb that Saruman had used to contact Sauron. I stared at it, my eyes drawn to it. My palm seared with pain, and I felt a strange pull, as if I had to be near it.
"Come to me, Seraphina."
His voice invaded my mind. I jerked away from the orb, causing Merry to cry out in alarm. I righted myself, muttering a hurried apology to him.
"Peregrin Took, I'll take that, my lad."
Gandalf was leaning down from Shadowfax. Pippin looked up at Gandalf, and then back at the orb again. I sucked in a breath: surely Sauron's hold could not be that strong?
Gandalf's voice was commanding. Pippin held up the orb and Gandalf snatched it off of him, wrapping it in his robes, hiding it from view. A strange, lost look passed over Pippin's face as Aragorn helped him back on to Brego. Fear curled in my stomach as I watched Pippin. He seemed vacant, his eyes slightly glassy. I bit my lip. He was affected by Sauron already.
I was pulled from my thoughts by Merry's voice. I looked up and noticed the others had begun to trot away. I urged Fëa on, and she sprung forwards, after the others.
"Where are we going?"
Merry piped up from behind me, curious. I smiled slightly. We were heading back to Rohan. We had won a battle, and the people of Rohan knew how to celebrate their victories.
"To a celebration you will not forget."
Sí! – Now!