Legolas stood on a low hillock, surveying the wide land before them. They were nearing Helm's Deep. They were less than a day's journey from the great fortress of Rohan, and he could see nothing in the wide land that could pose a threat to the company, but his nerves were on edge, for what reason, he did not know.
The thumping of hooves drew near from behind him, and he turned to glance over his shoulder. The company was wending its slow way along, the long, tiresome journey having taken a visible toll on the people. Aragorn and Éowyn were walking slowly side by side at the head of the column, their horses following along at the reins. Further back, Gimli tromped alongside Arod as Háma and another soldier, Gamling, galloped past, surged up the low rise upon which Legolas stood, and continued on ahead, over the slope of another hill, and out of sight beyond a thrusting ledge of rock that rose toward the higher ground above them.
Something was wrong. Legolas could sense it, like a fleeting intangible odor in the air, and he could see too, the nervous dancing of the horses, who sensed something sinister as well.
He did not wait long. For ahead, from the direction in which the two men had disappeared, came sudden shouts and the terrified screams of horses, accompanied by deep throated canine snarls.
"Wargs!" Came the frantic warning shout, though as Legolas broke into a run across the dry waving grass toward the sound, he had already guessed it. One of the horses was down, he saw, as he cleared the crest of the hill, and the scabby, rough haired wolf, mounted by a scimitar wielding orc, had just flung away Háma, who fell limp, rolled over the grass, and lay still.
The orc had turned now on Gamling, who struggled with his frightened steed with one hand while his sword crossed against the orc's blade with a harsh crash of metal.
Legolas flew with a running leap down the crumbled rock from the higher ledge, hardly pausing as his feet struck the ground, stringing and releasing an arrow on the run. One of his white knives was in his hand even before the arrow had struck true through the neck of the wolf. The creature fell heavily to the ground, dead before it hit the earth, its head bouncing as its thick limbs twitched. It had thrown its rider, and the orc barely had time to glance up and utter a hideous screech before Legolas' knife flashed across its throat, ending its screams in a gurgle of frothy black blood.
"A scout!" He shouted over his shoulder at Aragorn who had come rushing behind. With a furious kick, he sent the convulsing body rolling away as Aragorn turned and sprinted back down the hill.
"What is it?" Théoden demanded, galloping near on his horse. "What do you see?"
"Wargs!" Aragorn shouted. "We're under attack!"
As the cries of fear at Aragorn's news rose from the column behind him, Legolas turned and sprinted up the steep slope of the rising ground, bounding over the yellow grass and leaping off the jagged edged stones, until he came to the crest of the slope and paused upon a projecting lip of stone just as a great seething mass of barking wargs and their orcish riders came flying over the crest of the distant rill, swarming thickly down the side of it into the shallow undulating valley between the two rolling hills.
They continued to pour over the ridge, dozens upon dozens, a yelping, snapping flood of bloodthirsty vermin, and his blood boiled hot. Snatching an arrow from his quiver, he drew it back to his cheek, and let fly, finding small satisfaction as his arrow found its mark in the back of the neck of the foremost wolf as it lunged down the side of a small rill. The creature tumbled, dead, throwing its orc master as it fell, ignored by its comrades who galloped over it, as both mount and rider tumbled to a stop, still and dead, but more were coming.
Legolas could hear the thunderous pounding of many hooves growing behind him, and released one more arrow into the oncoming pack before he turned. Arod, with Gimli upon his back, was hurtling toward him beside the galloping horses of Aragorn and Théoden. Many more mounted soldiers were flying over the grass behind them as the green flag of Rohan, etched with the form of a running white horse clapped fiercely through the swift wind.
As Arod flew near, Legolas reached out, and in the instant that the horse whipped past, snatched the buckle of the harness across his white chest. His fingers strained with the effort of his weight suddenly pulled from the ground by the speed of Arod's flight, but with the strength built from centuries of tireless training with bow and blade, clung on. The momentum of the horse's speed as well as his own straining muscles, carried him across the front of Arod's neck, and upward over the surging horse's back, where he swung at last into the saddle in front of Gimli who was too startled at the Elf's acrobatic mount into the saddle to utter any more than a strangled grunt of surprise that was whipped quickly away into the wind.
The others barely noticed, for their eyes were fixed with grim determination upon the snapping growling pack flying with every increasing pace toward them. He could see the hatred in their eyes, in the eyes of the orcs, as well as their warg mounts, their training to kill whipped and beaten into them from whelphood. Time seemed to slow as horses and wargs flew at each other. A hundred paces lay between them, then fifty, then twenty.
And then with a furious crash as of thunder, they struck each other.
Chaos erupted. Baying wolves and white eyed horses, frothing at the bit, wove together as their masters clashed. An orc, speared through the chest, fell from its saddle and was trampled beneath the flailing hooves of horses as well as its own snarling mount, which, in its mindless bloodlust, turned on its own master, snatching the wounded orc in its mouth, and ending its pain with a crunch of its spine, before flinging the dead orc away. It turned to lunge at a horse's neck, before another spear was thrust beneath its foreleg, in between its ribs, and into its heart. It collapsed, twitching, beside the master it had betrayed.
Legolas sighted upon one warg, bearing down released the string of his bow with a sharp twang, and the arrow flew with unerring accuracy, into the throat of the beast, right behind its spear studded collar. With a dying yelp, it flipped into the air, head over tail, flinging its rider from its back, before landing heavily upon the unfortunate orc, crushing it into the ground. Neither moved again.
As metal clashed with metal, and the screams of terrified horses wove together with the snarls of wolves, Legolas turned Arod's head toward a snarling wolf that had slashed its bloodied claws into the belly of a horse, that lay screaming in its own gore, and struggling to rise, the poor creature confused as to why its legs no longer worked. The warg had sighted now on its master as well, a young looking Man, whose was struggling to draw his pinned leg from beneath the weight of his mortally wounded mount. As Arod galloped frantically, Legolas felt Gimli slip. But he had precious little time to glance back and see that the Dwarf had rolled to his feet, uninjured, before he had to turn and rush onward. He loosed an arrow into the wolf's side mid-stride, unsheathed one of his knives in one swift motion, and as Arod sprinted past, slashed the blade across the throat of the warg's orc rider even before the dead wolf beneath it had time to collapse. Glancing down and ensuring himself that the young human had found his feet and was safe, for the moment, he turned Arod about again.
Gimli stood alone upon the yellow, bloodied grass where he had fallen, brandishing his axe as a scar faced warg, its mouth stained crimson from a dead horse whose bloody belly it had been nosing, lifted its head, and twitched its ears at him. A low snarl escaped its throat, and it padded away from the mangled horse, sniffing the air as it growlingly grew closer to Gimli.
"Bring your pretty face to my axe!" The Dwarf challenged, and the warg complied, breaking into a thumping run.
Having no time to seek a better angle to strike at the warg, Legolas drew his string back, left-handed, and released an arrow into the wolf's throat. It fell, instantly dead, with the arrowhead thrusting clear through its head and out of one nostril, plowing up a mound of earth at the Dwarf's feet.
"That one counts as mine!" Gimli complained as Legolas galloped off to lend help elsewhere. Gimli could look after himself, especially now that there were fewer orcs and their mounts to contend with.
Legolas' arrows struck down three more wolves and their riders, before at last, he reined Arod in, and glanced about. Most of their foes were dead, and those not killed, were fleeing with fearful yaps, back the way they had come. Though a few of Théoden's men pursued after them a short distance, they soon turned themselves about, and came back, deciding that the chase was not worth the risk.
Gimli was still alive, thankfully, though he was staggering about, at the bottom of the grassy hollow as if he had had the breath knocked out of him. But the sturdy Dwarf still seemed to have the use his wits as he drew near a bloodied, wounded warg, and brought his axe down with a hollow chunk into the creature's neck, cutting off its growling whimpers.
Théoden too, was uninjured. He had dismounted, and was glancing about now as if looking for someone, a fraught, worried expression on his face. Legolas quickly realized the reason for the king's agitation, for as he cast his eyes across the blood soaked field, strewn with the bodies of Men and of orcs as well as their mounts, he could see no sign of Aragorn. Hasufel stood near, uninjured, yet riderless, his head lifted and his ears perked as if he too, were looking about for his master.
A cold feeling gripped Legolas' chest as he leapt from Arod's back to the ground. "Aragorn!" He cried, striding up a low rise, praying that perhaps he was on the other side. But at the crest, he could see no sign of Aragorn, alive or dead.
"Aragorn?" Echoed Gimli, now too glancing about in the hope that they might spot some sign of him. But there was nothing.
Striding quickly toward the edge of a bare rock, Legolas crouched down, over a spoor of bright red blood drawn out along the cruel, serrated stone for a short space. It looked as if a Man had been dragged here, his shoulder, perhaps, braised against the rough rock.
A cruel, gurgling chuckle brought his attention away from the short trail of blood, and he glanced behind him at an orc that lay upon the ground, coughing black blood through its teeth with each cackle. A knife wound in its chest was pouring blood, and a few paces away, lay the curved knife Celeborn had given Aragon in Lothlórien, as if it had made the wound, but had somehow torn loose when the creature fell from its mount.
"Tell me what happened, and I will ease your passing." Gimli growled, bounding near, and holding his axe above the face of the orc.
"He's-," coughed the orc as Legolas strode near, and Théoden came up behind Gimli, moving more slowly, "-dead."
As blood spilled from its lips, the orc sneered, "He took a little tumble off the cliff."
Legolas dropped to a knee, and shook the orc roughly at this news. "You lie!" He seethed through clenched teeth.
But the orc gave no reply to this, and instead stiffened, wheezing as if struggling for air, and its breath stopped. Legolas shoved the dead orc back upon the ground in disgust, and then noticed the silver shimmer of something clutched in its hand.
His eyes did not want to believe what they saw as he slowly drew the necklace of the Evenstar, from the dead creature's fist. The gift from Arwen that Aragorn had worn around his neck since the Fellowship had begun their journey. And his heart felt suddenly as heavy as a stone. It could not be true, and yet it was.
Leaping up, he darted, with Gimli scrambling behind him, to the edge of the rock, where Théoden already stood, gazing with helpless eyes down to the bottom of the cliff where a brown frothing river roiled between the crags of stone. There were shelves of rock jutting out from the base of the cliff over the rumbling water, but there was no broken body lying down there among the ragged stones. There was no sign at all of Aragorn, and but for the necklace in his hand, Legolas would have refused to believe that his friend could have fallen. The body must have landed in the water, he realized as his sickened, heavy heart sank in his chest. The river must have carried it off, rolling it away down stream where it would never be found again.
"Get the wounded on horses." Théoden turned and called wearily to Gamling who had drawn near, and stood, awaiting orders. The man gave a sober nod as Théoden continued. "The wolves of Isengard will return." After a moment's pause, he finished in a more somber voice, "Leave the dead." And shoved with a gesture of finality, his sword back into its sheath.
Legolas turned, and caught Théoden's eye. Had he heard his words properly? They would leave the slain bodies of their brave comrades to rot upon the earth, unburied, to be torn by wolves and vultures? They would not even try to seek for Aragorn's body?
But as Théoden's eyes caught his own, Legolas suddenly sensed the weight of the king's office that Théoden bore, and understood, with the heavy grief that lay there in Théoden's eyes, how difficult it had been to give such an order. Théoden was right. The orcs would return, and delaying their retreat to Helm's Deep would only put the survivors in greater danger.
"Come." The king offered, gently clapping Legolas' shoulder. Théoden turned away then, and walked with heavy step from the ledge of the cliff. But Legolas lingered, with Gimli at his shoulder, gazing for long moments into the tumbling rush of brown water far below them, the river that had carried away the body of their comrade.
"Your brother tells me that you have used the little gift I gave you to do nothing but play." Saruman said without preamble as Greta entered the darkened room.
She scowled at the dingy, white robed wizard who stood almost serenely, except for the sly tepid grin on his face, before a great sphere of iron, studded with sharp spikes. In spite of the many candles set within great iron wrought candle sticks about the room, the air was still thick and shaded. But Greta liked the shadows. They were more suited to her.
She flashed a scathing look at her dark robed brother who stood clutching a candle, simpering in a corner of the room.
"Your orcs stole my horse." She growled in return to Saruman's words, flopping down into an empty chair before the wizard. "And ate it!"
"You should be grateful that I told them of your coming." Saruman said evenly with a lift of his brow as he poured a shower of dark pebbly stones into an opening at the top of the spherical cask "For if I had not ordered them to leave you unmolested, they would have eaten you as well." He smiled sourly. "Among other things."
Greta said nothing to this, as she absorbed the wizard's low spoken words with a shudder. At last, she shrugged, cast a bitter glance at her brother, and asked casually, "How did you know I was coming?"
"You are just like your brother in heart and mind, my dear." Saruman's voice was cool, oily as if he knew of many things she did not know, and enjoyed leaving her in her ignorance. "When he arrived simpering like a dog with his tail between his legs, I knew you would not be far behind."
Casually, Saruman dusted off his hands, and reached for a filled wine goblet at his side, and took a sip. Greta eyed it thirstily; it had been long since she had anything to eat or drink. But Saruman simply smiled, and set it back down, offering her nothing offered her nothing.
"As I was saying, my dear," he cooed soothingly, "you were not able to complete the task that I requested of you. You could have married the king's son. You and your brother could have destroyed Rohan from within. You failed."
"Théodred was beyond me!" She defended herself with a sudden angry huff. "He did not want me, and I could not use the powers you gave me to become more desirable to him, because he put all his thought to defending Rohan."
"I always thought it a foolish, useless thing to be able to change into the image of whatever woman a man was thinking of." Gríma muttered almost inaudibly from his corner.
Greta turned to him, and flashed him a vicious smirk through Éowyn's fair, lightly freckled face, as her long black hair flared momentarily to a bright honey brown, then snuffed back to her own black color as she turned back to Saruman, her own face flashing back in its place.
"I did my best. Better than Gríma." She scowled stubbornly, casting a dark look at her brother who returned it.
"Stop your bickering!" Saruman commanded glancing between the two off them, his eyes flashing with an unspoken threat. "You both fell short of what I expected of you."
Greta cringed, seeing the fury in his eyes, and fearing him.
"You are fortunate that I am patient." He seethed softly through his teeth, his cold eyes flashing between the two. "And that I have found a way to destroy Rohan in spite of your failure. Otherwise, I might begin to think that you have outlived your usefulness. And then," he turned now, his attention fully on Greta now and lifted a brow, "you would have more to worry about than stolen horses."
She gulped, and glanced from him to the spiked iron ball. "What is this for?" She asked in a voice that shook in spite of herself.
"This, my dear, will help me, where you failed."
"How?" She asked, grasping a candle from its bracket and stepping closer.
"Helm's Deep has one weakness." Gríma muttered proudly, sneering bitterly at her as if with knowledge that only he was privy to. "It's outer wall is solid rock but for a small culvert at its base which is little more than a drain."
"Do you know, my dear, how to split a tree's heart open?" Saruman asked casually glancing at Great, as he turned to a nearby table and picked up a clear glass beaker filled with more of the small black pebbles. "You find a weak spot a crack, if you will, in its bark, and into that, you place a sharp bladed wedge. And then," he smiled cruelly as he poured the black pebbles into the opening of the great spiked ball, "you strike it."
"How?" Gríma asked, scraping near, holding his flickering candle over the iron sphere. "How can fire undo stone? What kind of device could bring down the wall?" As he held his candle over the opening into which Saruman had poured the black grains, the wizard reached out and caught his hand which held the burning candle, and pushed him back.
"If the wall is breached, Helm's Deep will fall." Saruman said evenly, as he turned away, took up his wizard's staff, and began to stride down a long hallway.
"Even if the wall is breached," Gríma muttered as he followed hunched and scurrying behind, "it will take a number beyond reckoning, thousands to storm the Keep."
"Tens of thousands." Greta scoffed, hopping to her feet and striding after the wizard and her brother. She sneered at Gríma behind his back. He had not seen the massing orcs as she had, when she had come.
"Indeed." Saruman agreed as the three strode through a wide room. In the middle, sat a high pedestal upon which sat a great stone, smooth and polished like a black opal. Beneath its black surface, striated clouds seemed to pass swiftly, concealing distorted distant images within its depths, and she narrowed her eyes at it. What it's use was for, she could not begin to guess. Perhaps it was nothing more than some worthless wizard's toy. With a sneer, she turned her eyes back to Saruman.
"But my lord, there is no such force." Gríma insisted. Greta chuckled aloud.
"Fool." She muttered as the three stepped through an open doorway and into the hot wind that brushed their faces across the high balcony upon which she found herself.
Orc horns sounded, and a collective roar rose up from many thousands of orc throats. She glanced at her brother with a sneer, pleased at his dumbfounded reaction.
As Saruman held up a hand, the roaring chant of the orcs quieted, and he called out to the massed throng, "A new power is rising! Its victory is at hand."
To this, the orcs broke into a frenzied cheer once again, quelled into silence by Saruman's nod, and lifted hand.
"This night," he shouted, "the land will be stained with the blood of Rohan. March to Helm's Deep. Leave none alive." His eyes glazed with mad delight, Saruman lifted both hands into the air, and cried, "To war!"
Greta grinned evilly over the shrieking throng of orcs, but as she lifted her eyes to her brother's and saw a single tear make its way down his cheek, her smile fell away . Did he regret what he had done, selling himself to the promises of Saruman?
Gazing long at the tear upon her brother's cheek, Greta's previous glee faded, for she realized that she too felt something inside. Something that was still human beneath all the darkness and cruelty. And in that small part of her that still felt, she realized that she hated herself.