"A great host, you say?"
Though Théoden stood with his back toward Legolas and the others, Legolas knew that the king's face, lined with age and worries, was even more furrowed now, for he could hear the tones of concern in his low, guarded voice.
"All Isengard is emptied," came Aragorn's calm words echoing softly in the great chamber.
The air here, within the king's chamber was musty, and smelled dry and unused. Dust motes swirled in the beams of light that streamed in through the windows high in the stone walls. It was warm, too for early March; the king's men, in full armor, had brows, damp with perspiration. But they did not show the discomfort they felt. They would not. They were a proud people, these Rohirrim.
"Ten thousand strong, at least." Was Aragorn's calm answer.
"Ten thousand?" Théoden hissed in disbelief, turning to face them again as he cast a furrowed glance at Aragorn.
"It is an army bred for a single purpose." Aragorn replied. "To destroy the world of Men."
As a look of subdued dismay cast itself across Théoden's features, Aragorn added in a somber whisper, "They will be here by nightfall."
At these words, a desperate, determined look took possession of the king's face, and as he turned and strode toward the doors, his voice rang out through the hall, "Let them come!"
"They will break upon this fortress like water on rock." Théoden's voice rang out as he strode though an archway that led out upon the inner wall of the Keep. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli followed behind, as well as Gamling, a step behind the Dwarf.
"Saruman's hordes will pillage and burn." Théoden said as Aragorn, with Legolas a step behind him, followed the king down a set of worn stone steps. "We've seen it before."
Legolas could hear the confident ring in Théoden's tone, and shook his head subtly. He lifted his eyes as Aragorn glanced over his shoulder, and by the look upon the Man's face, he could see that Aragorn's thoughts were his own. Théoden sounded too confident. Legolas could hear Gimli's heavy steps clomping behind him, and wondered if the Dwarf was still stinging from Théoden's reprimand at the gate. So quickly Théoden had tossed aside Gimli's suggestion that perhaps the uruk-hai were a force to fear, that Legolas had come to the conclusion that Théoden, as battle hardened as he was, knew nothing of this new vile creature of Saruman's making. He had seemed to think it was nothing more than a trivial band of orcs out to raid a few horses.
Legolas offered a silent nod to Aragorn's troubled glance.
"Crops can be resown, homes rebuilt." Théoden was continuing as the group marched around the curve of the wall, and past a group of three armored soldiers.
As the king strode past them, the men followed him with their eyes, almost like small children, seeking reassurance from something that they feared.
"Within these walls," Théoden continued boldly, "we will outlast them."
"They do not come to destroy Rohan's crops or villages." Aragorn countered at last, voicing the thoughts that had been roiling in Legolas' mind as well. "They come to destroy its people. Down to the last child."
As these words came forth, Théoden turned, a fierce light in his eyes as he stepped back to Aragorn, and grasped his arm.
"What would you have me do?" He demanded in a hiss of a whisper. "Look at my men. Their courage hangs by a thread! If this is to be our end, then I would have them make such an end as to be worthy of remembrance!"
Théoden dropped Aragorn's arm at this, and turned away.
"Send out riders my lord." Aragorn insisted, to which Théoden again turned back, his eyes burning fiercely now. "You must call for aid."
"And who will come?" Théoden asked, stepping back, his face furrowed in a look of morbid humor. "Elves? Dwarves?" He nodded over Aragorn's shoulder at Legolas who stood behind, and at Gimli beside him. "We are not so lucky in our friends as you. The old alliances are dead." The last word fell like a heavy stone from the king's lips, and Legolas knew that Théoden was not as truly assured as he sounded. He wore a face of confidence for the sake of his men, for he knew they looked to him as their king for guidance. But inwardly he was as unsure as the smallest lad still fit for battle.
"Gondor will answer." Aragorn declared with surety.
"Gondor?" Théoden spat back, fuming. "Where was Gondor when the Westfold fell? Where was Gondor when our enemies closed in around us? Where was Gon-," Théoden quickly glanced down, stifling his fury, though there was still a fierce desperate fire in his eyes as he glanced back up at Aragorn.
"No, my Lord Aragorn," he said in a voice that was soft, yet somehow more terrible than the words he had spoken in anger. "We are alone."
With that he turned and strode away, leaving Aragorn standing where he was.
Gamling darted past him after the king, but Aragorn remained alone, making no effort to follow. Legolas, his heart weighted as a stone, dropped his eyes to the rock of the parapet beneath his feet. But as he heard a loud harsh cry high in the still air above him, he lifted his eyes to see great flocks of black crebain circling above them in the sky, their harsh caws falling down upon the stones of the Hornburg, and upon the people huddled within its walls like drops of bitter, burning rain.
"Treebeard, I remember you said something once of Entwives." Lalaith asked from the spot on the branch where she sat behind Treebeard's head with the Hobbits with Merry above and Pippin below her as they swayed back and forth with each step booming the great Ent took, on his path through the grey green shadows of the forest. "Are they Ent women?"
"Ah, yes." Boom Treebeard. "The Entwives. And there were Entmaidens too, back when the world was young."
"So women Ents are called Entwives?" Pippin asked from his perch near Treebeard's shoulder.
"Indeed." Rumbled the Ent in fond recollection. "Ah, the loveliness of Fimbrethil!"
"But you're not called an Enthusband, are you?" Pippin asked again.
"Hoom," breathed Treebeard in a voice that said he had not expected such a question. "Well, no. I am merely an Ent. As are all male Ents called."
"But isn't that a bit chauvinistic?" Pippin chirped. "Ow!" This last word was spoken as Merry reached down and spatted the back of his head with his hand as he shot him a disapproving look.
"Hm hoom." Rumbled Treebeard. "I have never thought about it that way, before."
"Well, tell us about them." Lalaith exclaimed, shooting a quick look at Pippin.
"I fear that there is little to tell." Treebeard breathed slowly. "You see, we lost the Entwives."
"How very sad!" Said Pippin. "How was it that they all died?"
"They did not die!" Treebeard grumbled. "I never said died. We lost them, I said. And we cannot find them."
"How did you lose them?" Gasped Pippin. "I should think it would be as easy to lose an Oliphaunt!"
"Hush, Pippin!" Lalaith and Merry hissed together.
"Well," Treebeard said after a pause. "It is a rather strange and sad story. When the world was young, and the woods were wide and wild, the Ents and the Entwives walked together and housed together. But our hearts did not go on growing in the same way.
The Ents loved the great trees, and the wild woods, and the slopes of the high hills; and they drank of the mountain streams, and ate only such fruit as the trees let fall in their path; and they learned of the Elves and spoke with the Trees. But the Entwives loved the smaller trees, and the meads in the sunshine beyond the feet of the forests and they saw the sloe in the thicket and the wild apple and the cherry blossoming in the spring, and the green herbs in the waterlands in summer, and the seeding grasses in the autumn fields. So the Entwives made gardens to live in. But we Ents went on wandering, and we came to the gardens only now and again. Then when the Darkness came in the North, the Entwives crossed the Great River, and made new gardens, and tilled new fields, and we saw them more seldom. After the Darkness was overthrown the land of the Entwives blossomed richly. Many Men learned the crafts of the Entwives and honored them greatly. But then-, I remember it was long ago, desire came over me to see Fimbrethil again. Very fair she was still in my eyes. We crossed the Anduin and came to their land; but we found it a desert: it was all burnt and uprooted, for a war had passed over it, and the Entwives were not there. Long we called and long we searched; and we asked all folk that we met which way the Entwives had gone. Some said they had seen them walking away west, and some said east and others south. But nowhere we went, could we find them. Our sorrow was very great. Yet the wild wood called, and we returned to it. And now the Entwives are only a memory for us, and our beards are long and grey. Hoom hoom."
Treebeard sighed, and paused a long while before he spoke again. "We keep to the trees now, and concern ourselves will little else. We Ents have not troubled about the wars of Men and wizards for a very long time." He paused again as he strode out of the thick of the trees into the sunlight of a smooth grass-clad clearing, the sides sloped down and inward, making the clearing almost as round as a bowl. In almost the exact center of the grassy bowl, was a great stone, pointed and jutting up from the ground, reminding Lalaith of a great sundial's hand.
"But now," Treebeard breathed, "something is about to happen that has not happened for an age." He rumbled slowly in his throat before he added, "Entmoot."
"What's that?" Asked Merry.
"'Tis a gathering." Rumbled Treebeard.
"A gathering of what?" Merry asked again.
But Lalaith had already guessed, for as Merry had been speaking, she had heard, beneath his questions, the resonant boom of many striding Ent feet drawing closer through the trees. And now, as Merry and Pippin lifted their heads and looked around, she could see that they too heard, and could see now, numerous tree-ish creatures, as different from Treebeard in appearance as one tree from another, stepping out of the forest shadows and drawing in a close circle around Treebeard.
"Beech. Oak. Chestnut. Ash. Good. Good, good." Treebeard rumbled as his fellow Ents drew close and stopped. "Many have come."
Their great golden eyes gazed upon Lalaith and the Hobbits with wise curiosity, and uttered soft rumbles to each other in their own slow language.
"Now we must decide," Treebeard breathed in his deep throaty voice, "if the Ents will go to war."
Lalaith smiled to herself, and traded a hopeful grin with Merry. If the Ents did decide to go to war, as they surely would, then Saruman and his minions would surely be defeated.